Forget the hype – Osborne’s Budget is an irrelevance

Expect no surprises tomorrow. In fact, the economic die has already been cast.

Tomorrow is the Budget, one of the great set-piece events of the Westminster calendar. A moment when governments rise and fall, and careers are made or destroyed.

Not this year. Forget the hype, diluted though it has been by events in Libya and Japan. Politically at least, George Osborne's speech is an irrelevance.

He could surprise us. Take the opportunity offered by Ed Balls to apologise for the grievous damage already wrought to the British economy on his watch and beg forgiveness. "The Chancellor stunned the House of Commons today when he concluded his Budget address by collapsing weeping over the despatch box and imploring the opposition benches, 'Pardon us, pardon us, we were wrong, so very, very wrong.' "

I doubt it. Osborne is not Cameron. While the Prime Minister's instincts are to scurry away from the sound of gunfire, his Chancellor is made of sterner stuff. He is perfectly content to court short-term unpopularity in pursuit of what he regards as long-term political gain. The axe is falling. Nothing will stay his hand.

There will be the odd populist nugget thrown out to placate the discontented mob. Fuel duty will be frozen. Possible taxes on air passenger duty.

There was also some briefing in the Sunday papers about training and measures to tackle youth unemployment.

But this is mere window-dressing. Deficit reduction, hard and fast, is the government's stated policy. Tomorrow will be a reaffirmation of that, not a repudiation.

There is obviously something personal at stake for the protagonists. This is Osborne's first proper Budget and Ed Balls's first Budget response. But these are two seasoned performers. Neither is going to make a major gaffe. Neither will allow the other a major opening. The immovable deficit reducer will meet the irresistible fiscal stimulator. They will both retire with honours even.

Indeed, both meet tomorrow more secure in their position than their respective principles. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are still the subject of muttering from their respective back benches. Osborne is regarded by disgruntled Tories as the man who puts the lead in the government's pencil. Ed Balls is the person who brings stature to a still inexperienced leadership team.

Ready for a change of heart?

That's not to say the economic battleground on which they will take up arms is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. The economy is the issue that will define our politics between now and the general election. But tomorrow is a sideshow.

Far more significant will be the release of the next set of growth figures. If they show the economy has indeed slipped into recession, then all bets are off. Labour's general critique of the government's strategy – and Ed Balls's specific attack on the pace and scale of deficit reduction – would be vindicated at a stroke. In that instance, Labour is back in the game.

If, on the other hand, the economy rebounds and the wrong kind of snow is seen as being responsible for last quarter's downturn, then it is Osborne who will feel vindicated. He will portray himself as the man who kept his head while those about him on the opposition benches were losing theirs. The mantra of tough decisions, courageously enforced, will echo once more.

There are no certainties. The public backlash against the Osborne austerity package could prove overwhelming. Losses in the local elections could enforce a change of a heart.

It could equally be the case that an economic downturn focuses public attention even more firmly on the reasons behind our economic collapse. The opinion polls asking who people most blame for the deficit and attendant economic hardship make stubbornly sombre reading for Labour.

Whatever the answers to these questions, they will not be found tomorrow. Though it provides political theatre, the Budget in truth rarely proves to be a political game-changer, especially so early in the parliament.

Even at the end of the parliamentary cycle, budgets rarely change the political narrative. Kenneth Clarke's refusal to offer profligate tax cuts in his last budget before the Tories' 1997 defeat was because he knew that whatever he flourished from his battered old box, the game was up. Last year, Alistair Darling tried manfully but singularly failed to convince the nation that the economy remained safe in Labour's hands.

The fact is that the economic die has been cast. Cameron and Osborne have made their choice. They have one policy: deficit reduction. For them, there is no alternative. They will live or perish by its outcome.

The rest, tomorrow included, is just gossip.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.