"Do Cameron and Osborne know what they're doing?"

That is the question voters will ask.

Jeremy Hunt is in trouble. The Culture Secretary’s statement in the House of Commons today has done nothing to dispel the impression that he allowed News Corp privileged insight into a process he was overseeing in a quasi-judicial capacity. A cache of emails released yesterday clearly indicates that, at least as viewed from the Murdoch side, Hunt was a collaborative partner in the process of ensuring smooth passage of the controversial bid to take 100% control of BSkyB. Hunt’s defence appears to be that such an impression is false and  derives from excitable embellishment by the emails’ author – News Corp’s European public affairs director Frederic Michel – encouraged by over-zealous briefing by Adam Smith, the minister’s own special adviser. Smith has resigned.

It is a flimsy line and a shabby one. The secretary of state is responsible for his advisor’s actions and it is simply not credible that so much information, briefings and encouragement were fed to Michel behind Hunt’s back. If the Spad behaved in a way that seemed to lubricate relations with News Corp it is because his boss instructed him to do so. That raises the question of what instructions Hunt had from his own boss – the Prime Minister.

Cameron will not want to lose Hunt. He is a loyal minister who has, until now, proved diligent and effective. Besides, any forced resignation carries a whiff of disorder and corruption. But, crucially, if Hunt goes, suspicious eyes turn automatically higher up the chain of command. We know that Cameron was close to James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. He found time in his busy schedule for Christmas lunches and Cotswolds rambles with the latter. If, as the emails strongly imply, the Culture Secretary saw facilitation of the BSkyB bid as part of his job description, it is reasonable to suppose he took that interpretation from Downing Street’s culture of wider Murdoch facilitation. Of course, Hunt’s case is egregious because he was supposed to be acting in a quasi-judicial role. The PM, meanwhile, is allowed to have friends in business and media and was not the one making the takeover decision. That, at least, would be Downing Street’s defence. Unless there is some evidence that Cameron instructed Hunt to satisfy News Corps’s appetites (and one has to presume he would never be so crass), the damage to Number 10 from this episode is limited.

There is damage nonetheless. Most people, I suspect, will not drill too deep into the exact nature of the government’s role in regulating the media, who was responsible for what, when and whether or not specific communications were therefore improper. Labour should be wary of getting too excited about an issue that is essentially retrospective – the BSkyB bid is dead, the Leveson inquiry has been established and will report in due course. Cameron is unlikely to be seen riding a News of the World-branded police horse down Whitehall any time soon.

The most problematic part of the whole business for Downing Street is the way it reinforces the impression that the government serves rich and powerful clients before attending to the interests of ordinary citizens.  This is rapidly becoming a theme in criticism of Cameron, from the “kitchen suppers” for donors to the Budget tax breaks for high earners.

Today’s grim economic news – the confirmation of a double-dip recession - will feed a wider sense of drift that is shaking people’s confidence in the government. When challenged on the growth crisis in parliament, Cameron fell back on the familiar refrain that the difficulty in getting the economy back on track is simply an expression of the scale of the mess bequeathed by Labour. The political returns from that line are diminishing fast. The economy was expanding when Cameron entered Downing Street; now it is shrinking. How is that not at least to some extent a consequence of his policies? And what is the plan to restart growth? He says borrowing more is not the answer, but as many of his Conservative critics point out, borrowing more is precisely what he and George Osborne are being forced to do.

Those economic problems dwarf the local crisis enveloping the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. They are connected in one crucial respect. Double-dip recession will provoke in many people’s minds the question of whether Cameron and Osborne know what they are doing. The reminder of cosy collaboration with billionaire media moguls provokes the question of whose side they are really on. The combination of those doubts in the public mind could be electorally ruinous.

David Cameron and George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.