Osborne's speech: long on politics, short on growth

The Chancellor launched attack after attack on Labour, but where was the plan for growth?

When George Osborne addressed the Conservative conference he did so as his party's chief election strategist, not as Chancellor. His speech was long on politics, but staggeringly short on growth (indeed, the word didn't appear) and jobs.

As ever, one could not fault his chutzpah. He declared that the country must not "divide one group against another" before casually demonising welfare claimants as scroungers, "sleeping off a life on benefits". He insisted that everyone had been too optimistic about growth, forgetting those economists - Paul Krugman, Robert Skidelsky, our own David Blanchflower - who warned that his obsession with austerity would tip the country back into recession. And, for the first time since he abolished the 50p tax rate on earnings over £150,000, he uttered the words "we're all in it together". In one of his many assaults on Labour, Osborne declared, "All this talk about something for something and they've learned nothing about anything", but with the country back in recession (the only G20 country, with the exception of Italy, to be so) and borrowing up by 22% so far this year, it was he who gave the appearance of having learned nothing.

Faced with a crisis of demand, the government needs to stimulate growth through tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending. It could take advantage of the ultra-low interest rates that Osborne is so fond of boasting of and borrow for an emergency stimulus. But all the Chancellor offered was a fiendishly complex new scheme allowing workers to acquire shares in their companies in exchange for giving up employment rights. In Britain, already the third most deregulated labour market in the developed world, it is not excessive regulation or "red tape" that is constraining growth. But the Chancellor, blind to the need to revive "animal spirits", still acts as if it is.

He unambiguously ruled out a "mansion tax", vowing that "this party of home ownership will have no truck with it". Yet just 3.1% of homes are worth more than £1m and the tax, as proposed by Vince Cable, would only apply to those twice this amount. In rejecting higher property taxes, Osborne has missed an opportunity to prove that he really is more concerned about "the squeezed middle" than squeezed millionaires. His priority, he said, would be to further reduce "aggressive tax avoidance", but making the rich pay taxes they're meant to be paying anyway is not the same as raising taxes on them. If the Lib Dems are to avoid further humiliation, they will need something more in return for signing up to an additional £10bn of punitive welfare cuts.

As Osborne spoke, it became clear that David Cameron had contracted out the job of attacking Ed Miliband to his Chancellor. Evidently unsettled by the Labour leader's bravura speech, Osborne declared that it was "risible" to pretend that you can become a party of "one nation" just by repeating the phrase, and that Miliband, masquerading as a centrist, was, in reality, "moving to the left". But in his refusal to adopt a more balanced deficit reduction strategy and in his defence of the wealthy, it is the Chancellor who has vacated the centre ground and his party that has relinquished any claim to be a party of "one nation". Today's speech did nothing to correct those errors.

Chancellor George Osborne delivers his speech during the second day of the annual Conservative conference in Birmingham. 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.