Osborne's very limited apology

The problem with the Budget wasn't merely presentational.

George Osborne is proud of his reputation as the Conservatives' pre-eminent political strategist, so it will have been painful for him to admit that he mishandled the politics of the Budget - the event that precipitated the "omnishambles". In today's Mail on Sunday, he concedes that the decision to abolish the 50p tax rate overshadowed the increase in the personal allowance: "The way the Budget was presented meant this message (helping low-earners) wasn’t heard. I take responsibility for that."

But as Douglas Alexander argued on The Andrew Marr Show, the problem with the Budget wasn't (or wasn't only) one of style but one of substance. It was impossible for Osborne to deliver a Budget that cut taxes for the top one per cent of earners without this tarnishing every other measure. As apologies go, then, the Chancellor's is a very limited one. Nor will he accept that his excessive austerity measures bear any responsibility for the double-dip. Appearing on the Marr show this morning, he repeated the familiar mantra that the eurozone crisis and the 2008 financial crisis were wholly to blame.

In his analysis of the local election results, he rightly rejected the absurd claim by some Conservative backbenchers that David Cameron's support for gay marriage and House of Lords reform led to voters deserting the Tories ("simply not the case"). Osborne, a genuine social liberal, also dismissed the claim in today's Sunday Times (£) that the government is backtracking on gay marriage. There was never due to be legislation in the Queen's Speech and the consultation period isn't over. "We are socially progressive country and it's something I suppport but let's hear what people have to say," he said. At the same time, he strongly hinted that the government has little desire to pursue House of Lords reform. "Parliament can discuss these issues, Parliament is very good at debating constitutional reform but it is certainly not my priority, it is not the priority of the government," he said. There will be no cast-iron commitment to Lords reform in the Queen's Speech.

The most intriguing section of the interview, however, was on today's French election. Some on the right have portrayed François Hollande as a dangerous socialist (as opposed to a moderate social democrat) but Osborne observed: "he's not anti-austerity actually. He has not departed from the message that you've got to deal with the French deficit." Indeed, Hollande has pledged to eliminate his country's 5.2 per cent deficit by 2017, just a year later than Nicolas Sarkozy. The irony is that were Hollande a British politician, his commitment to a more balanced plan and to fiscal stimulus would see Osborne dismiss him as a "deficit denier".

George Osborne chats with aides before the start of the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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