The coalition’s raison d'etre boils down to the notion that there is "no money left", and that austerity is the only solution. You probably know the spiel by now: Labour "wrecked" the economy by frittering away too much on public services, and as a consequence we must endure years of hardship lest "the markets" (read: bankers) get the jitters and yank the ceiling down upon our heads.
The fact that the cupboard is supposedly bare ought to have been driven home by the announcement yesterday that the government is planning to withdraw NHS funding for 25 cancer treatments.
Despite prolonging the lives of patients for up to two years, and regardless of the fact that the chief executive of the Rarer Cancers Foundation has described the move as “devastating”, the government intends to scrap funding for all but 59 of the 84 treatments currently available through the Cancer Drugs fund, based on the now familiar dogma that there is "no money left".
The fund was set up by the Coalition in 2011 and handed a budget of £200m. Despite being lauded by David Cameron when it was initially launched, it has now fallen victim to the Government’s own dogma, which revolves around the mantra of "belt tightening" in order to shrink the state.
Patients for whom funding is agreed before this April will continue to receive drugs on the NHS, but in future more than 3,000 patients a year with bowel cancer and 1,700 patients with breast cancer may be denied access to vital life-prolonging medications because of the cut.
To put this in starker terms, two thirds of patients with advanced bowel cancer will almost certainly face an earlier death, according to the chief executive of charity Beating Bowel Cancer.
Sometimes the most obvious question that comes to mind is the most pertinent one: is there really a better way for the Government to spend our money than on prolonging the lives of those with serious diseases? Diseases which, by the year 2020, almost one in two of us will be expected to get.
The increasing strain on NHS resources
I can certainly think of worse ways to spend the £280m that the Cancer Drugs Fund currently costs. The £20bn the government has earmarked for Trident – a means of extinguishing life rather than prolonging it – is just one example. If we have the money to kill people we surely ought to be able to find the money to cure them. And then there is the unnecessary and damaging NHS reorganisation, coming in at a cool £3bn.
Britain is not a poor country. In fact, it is a country where a property millionaire is created every seven minutes; a place where the average FTSE 100 chief executive received an average pay packet of £4.7m in 2014 – up from £4.1m the previous year. Walk down Kensington High Street or pay a visit to the Shard and you will soon grasp the fact that there is a great deal of money left; it just isn’t being taxed sufficiently and as a result it is not flowing in a socially useful direction.
The problem with the Cancer Drugs Fund is that to the drug companies it has resembled a seemingly limitless pot of money set aside just for them – removing the incentive for big pharma to agree to affordable prices with the NHS, which it managed to do quite easily in the past. But then when it was first set up the fund was always more about politics than saving lives: there was one Daily Mail headline too many about unaffordable cancer drugs and the PM shrewdly decided to act.
But whatever the problems with the fund, framing the debate as one in which cancer treatments are "no longer affordable" is to accept the ruthless politics of the continually receding state.
For all the clichés about "paying down the nation’s credit card", we live in a country where there is a great deal of money swilling around; it’s just a question of what we decide – and there is always a choice – to spend it on. When we’re willing to bust billions on a nuclear virility symbol that we will never use, cancer treatment seems like a fairly safe bet.