Tory MPs are losing patience with Osborne

The Chancellor's "disproportionate obsession" with Ed Balls comes under attack from his own side.

At one point in The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone sagely remarks: "Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment." It was this lesson that George Osborne, as so often in his political career, forgot this week. After his aides were forced to "clarify" that he had never alleged that Ed Balls was personally involved in the Libor scandal (rather that he had "questions to answer", a distinction without a difference if ever there was one), opinion is hardening among Conservative MPs that the Chancellor has overreached himself.

In a fascinating piece in today's Times (£), Sam Coates and Roland Watson collate a series of off-the-record barbs from Tory backbenchers. One MP describes Osborne's obsession with the alleged role of Balls and "Whitehall sources" in the scandal as a "red herring", adding: "There was no smoking gun." Another opines: "People want us to sort out the effing banks, not worry about what Ed Balls might have said four years ago.” Osborne's dual role as Chancellor and chief Tory strategist is also called into question (the increasing view among Tory MPs is that he isn't good at either job). One MP comments: "When are we going to get a Chancellor who is not part time? You can’t run the sixth largest economy in the world with a mate-ocracy."

The irony is that Osborne's jihad against Balls was intended to restore his Budget-battered reputation. But the Chancellor's obsessive desire to pin the scandal on Labour meant that he missed an obvious truth: what matters most is who is seen to have the right policy now. In the eyes of the public, the Tories' refusal to sanction a judicial inquiry (something that enjoyed the support of 75 per cent of voters, according to YouGov) or to levy new taxes on the banks (Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, tells today's Independent that the Lib Dems were pushing for a 10 per cent surcharge on bankers' bonuses) has confirmed their status as the political wing of the City of the London. As so often, Osborne, the man charged with constructing a Conservative majority, has achieved the reverse.

One Tory MP said of George Osborne, "When are we going to get a Chancellor who is not part time?" Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

0800 7318496