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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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