Who is the lurking tiger shark of the government: Michael Gove or George Osborne?

What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upw

It is a crystal clear autumn day and Larry, Moe and I are outside Westminster station. Before us, the gold trimmings on Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are blinging away in the sunshine.

“And this, Larry, is where all the people who run the country work.”

“Why do they run the country?”

“Good question, my friend.”

It feels odd being back here. The last time I came to this Tube station was for a Very Important Meeting with a minister. I had my smart suit on and felt very purposeful, just like all the square-jawed wonks milling around us. Now, though none of our great leaders would dream of pointing it out, I am just a pleb. I’ve got my holey old puffa jacket on and my only purpose is to be first in the queue for the London Aquarium, where Larry, Moe and I plan to spend the morning watching real live sharks.

Larry’s long and fervent relationship with Bob the Builder has come to an abrupt end. It turns out that Bob is “just for babies”. His new hero is Captain Barnacles, star of the sea-life-based educational cartoon The Octonauts. I find little to love about Barnacles, a curiously blank-faced teddy bear in a diving suit, but watching fish at the Aquarium certainly beats counting diggers at the building site down the road.

One day, when Larry is older, perhaps we’ll come to look around the Houses of Parliament, so we can marvel at our democracy in action. But there’s no time for that today, so we cross Westminster Bridge at a snip. Result! We are literally the first people here. A meet-and-greet girl with a pneumatic smile takes our picture and waves us inside.

The first few tanks are just the warm-up: jellyfish like luminous petticoats; furtive hermit crabs; a brace of knobbly sea slugs. Larry scoots past with his eyes on the prize. Deep in the heart of the cavernous building he finds what he is looking for: an enormous, three-storey tank filled with an eye-popping array of sea life. Above us, turtles the size of dining tables perform elegant pirouettes. Rays glide and dip like fat kites. One silver fish has a face uncannily like that of Victor Meldrew. And at the very bottom of the tank, creeping slowly, menacingly, with the terrible snaggle-toothed nonsmile of a James Bond baddy: the sand tiger shark.

Larry is breathless with excitement. “He’s like a monster, Mummy, like a thing, like a big, fat, terrible . . .” He grapples with his limited vocabulary. “Like a BEAST!”

We sit down to watch. After a few minutes, hypnotised by perpetual motion, I drift into a flight of fancy. What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upwards. Who’d be the lurking tiger shark – George Osborne? Michael Gove?

Meanwhile, the animals would run the country. They would do something about overfishing. Maybe they would ban plastic bags, and cod fish fingers, and oil exploration in the Arctic. As ideas go, I’ve certainly had worse.

Who is the tiger shark of the coalition? Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.