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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.