I have said it before, and no doubt I will say it again – George Osborne is too clever by half. And not in a good way. Every time he acts there is an overt political agenda, which is not in itself a bad thing. But there is usually also a hidden agenda or an unintended consequence and when these all get entangled then Osborne stumbles.
I am thinking, of course, of the autumn statement. The second but last of Osborne’s Rupert Pupkin performances. Remember Pupkin, the character played by Robert de Niro in Scorsese’s ‘King of Comedy’? His slogan was: ‘I’d rather be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime.’ Politically Osborne has tested that idea to destruction as chancellor. In a reverse Midas touch everything Osborne turns immediately to lead. Most obviously the omnishambles budget, but also – starkly – the target to eliminate the deficit in one term.
Then there is the autumn statement. On the preceding days and the day itself a masterpiece of presentation – or should I say representation. The capital spending consisted of re-announcements of existing schemes with ‘new’, or more often ‘new-to-you’, details. A third of the new NHS money was just re-allocated from existing health budgets, cuts unspecified. Then there was the fantasy tax. A fictional – but substantial – amount is to be raised by an unexplained tax on the notional and almost certainly non-existent windfall profits of Google and Amazon. It was a policy worthy of Tony Benn in its lip-smacking hatred for capitalism and its sneaky hidden profits.
But that was all a mere amuse-bouche. The main course was the biggest strategic error made by the Tories this term – the promise that Britain had a future of both further austerity and further tax cuts. This was always going to have to be Osborne’s dilemma – should he go to the election saying ‘the cure is working, the country is on the mend, but there are hard times still ahead’ or should he say ‘the medicine has worked, all is well, let us have a party’. Either made strategic sense. Osborne, characteristically, decided to both. So he announced tax giveaways and spending targets which would reduce the state to the size it was in the mid 1930s. What you might call the Yogi Burra strategy – ‘what do you do when you come to fork in the road?’, the baseball player famously asked. ‘Pick it up!’
Osborne’s choice was based on the gamble that Labour’s economic credibility was so low that no successful political challenge could be made to what he said. That is as may be, but the truth will out – and Osborne had not calculated for the Economisy and a trio of British national treasures – Evan Davies, the BBC and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In a devastating assault – all the more successful because uncoordinated – they blew chunks off Osborne. The Economist denounced the economic illiteracy of the government. Evan Davies and Norman Smith pointed out that the Office for Budget Responsibility figures meant spending at the level of the period that spawned ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. And the IFS merely pointed that what everyone was saying was true, and that the prime minister was not telling the truth when he said that the majority of the cuts had already been.
In the midst of this perfect storm Osborne chose to appear on the Today programme. Faced with difficult facts he went on the offensive. First, he attacked the BBC. Problematic in that, outside the Tory backbenches it is hard to find adult human beings who would trust Osborne over the Beeb. Second, he monstered the Pope, well not literally – even he is not that suicidal. But he did the next best thing, he attacked Paul Johnson, director of the IFS and the nearest we have to an infallible figure in British politics. In the space of 24 hours the autumn statement unravelled – no wonder there has been no poll bounce even with the giveaways. King for a day, schmuck for a lifetime, indeed.
One of the most important questions in politics is: ‘are you doing this because you want to, or because you have to?’ This is revealing because it goes to motive – which leads straight to values. I think we are justified in concluding that Osborne is cutting spending because he wants to, not because he has to. He is genuinely a low tax, small state politician. Good for him. It is always refreshing to see an ideological politician in the midst of the blandness we normally suffer. The problem for the Tories is that we do not live in Texas. We are not a country with an antipathy to the state or to welfare. We are natural pragmatists – ideology is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. And there is no appetite for public spending to be similar in size to an era when there was no NHS, no welfare state as we know it and most left school at 14. Maybe Osborne is lying and fully intends to break next term’s promises in the way he has broken this term’s ones. We will never know. Single-handedly he has just destroyed the last chance the Tories had of electoral recovery. It would, indeed, take a heart of stone not to laugh.
John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan
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