Who is left defending George Osborne?

The economists have deserted him, and business leaders are nowhere to be heard.

So far, we have heard from 13 of the 20 economists who signed the now-infamous letter to George Osborne in the Sunday Times in February 2010, in which they argued that:

[The] government's goal should be to eliminate the structural current Budget deficit over the course of a parliament.

Eleven of the economists responded to the New Statesman's request for a comment, two and a half years on. Of those, nine admitted that the changed situation had caused them to change their minds; one, Albert Marcet of Spain, remained supportive of Osborne; and the eleventh, Oxford's John Vickers, declined to comment either way.

Since then, two further signatories have got in touch with the Daily Telegraph to confirm that they, too, remain supportive. But what of the other seven? Will they admit they got it wrong; stake their colours ever firmer to a dying idea; or take the cowards' way out? We are still waiting to hear from:

  • Sir Howard Davies, then of the London School of Economics, now working for France's Science Po
  • Meghnad Desai, formerly of the London School of Economics
  • Andrew Turnbull, former Cabinet Secretary
  • Orazio Attanasio of University College London
  • John Muellbauer of Nuffield College, Oxford
  • Thomas Sargent of New York University, joint winner of 2011 Nobel prize in economics
  • Anne Sibert of Birkbeck College

The economists aren't the only letter writers who should be embarrassed of their record. What about the 35 businesspeople who signed, corralled by CCHQ, their own letter in October 2010, to the Telegraph, which began:

It has been suggested that the deficit reduction programme set out by George Osborne in his emergency Budget should be watered down and spread over more than one parliament. We believe that this would be a mistake.

This letter was signed by the 34 men and one woman in their personal capacities, but some of them have surely been hit hard by the collapse in confidence which has ensued in the last two years. Andy Bond, ASDA's former chairman, can't be too happy about the impact the weak economy has had on his old company's sales growth, for instance.

Of course, some are unlikely to recant no matter what the evidence. Party-funding transparency website Search the Money reveals that five of the 35 are donors to the Tories, with donations totalling over half a million pounds between them.

Will any of the business leaders recant? The full list, including positions in 2010, is below. The New Statesman awaits their response.

  • Will Adderley, CEO, Dunelm Group
  • Robert Bensoussan, Chairman, L.K. Bennett
  • Andy Bond, Chairman, ASDA
  • Ian Cheshire, Chief Executive, Kingfisher
  • Gerald Corbett, Chairman, SSL International, moneysupermarket.com, Britvic
  • Peter Cullum, Executive Chairman, Towergate
  • Tej Dhillon, Chairman and CEO, Dhillon Group
  • Philip Dilley, Chairman, Arup
  • Charles Dunstone, Chairman, Carphone Warehouse Group, Chairman, TalkTalk Telecom Group
  • Warren East, CEO, ARM Holdings
  • Gordon Frazer, Managing Director, Microsoft UK
  • Sir Christopher Gent, Non-Executive Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Ben Gordon, Chief Executive, Mothercare
  • Anthony Habgood, Chairman, Whitbread , Chairman, Reed Elsevier
  • Aidan Heavey, Chief Executive, Tullow Oil
  • Neil Johnson, Chairman, UMECO
  • Nick Leslau, Chairman, Prestbury Group
  • Ian Livingston, CEO, BT Group
  • Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO, MITIE Group
  • Rick Medlock, CFO, Inmarsat; Non-Executive Director lovefilms.com, The Betting Group
  • John Nelson, Chairman, Hammerson
  • Stefano Pessina, Executive Chairman, Alliance Boots
  • Nick Prest, Chairman, AVEVA
  • Nick Robertson, CEO, ASOS
  • Sir Stuart Rose, Chairman, Marks & Spencer
  • Tim Steiner, CEO, Ocado
  • Andrew Sukawaty, Chairman and CEO, Inmarsat
  • Michael Turner, Executive Chairman, Fuller, Smith and Turner
  • Moni Varma,Chairman,Veetee
  • Paul Walker, Chief Executive, Sage
  • Paul Walsh, Chief Executive, Diageo
  • Robert Walters, CEO, Robert Walters
  • Joseph Wan, Chief Executive, Harvey Nichols
  • Bob Wigley, Chairman, Expansys, Stonehaven Associates, Yell Group
  • Simon Wolfson, Chief Executive, Next

Read David Blanchflower's most recent column for the New Statesman, "Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith will accuse me of peeing on the data", here

Lord Wolfson, one of Osborne's defenders. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution