Osborne's rhetorical shift

The Chancellor insists that "flexibility" is built into his plan.

George Osborne conceded little ground to his critics on the Today programme this morning, but there was a notable shift in his rhetoric. To those who have demanded that he produce a "plan B", the Chancellor replied that "flexibility" was already built into his economic strategy.

There is flexibility built into the plan that I announced a year ago... We're talking about the structural deficit, so in other words we allow the automatic stabilisers to operate, which means that the economy can move up and down with the cycle, the government spending can move up and down with the cycle.

It's a point that Osborne could have made at any time over the past year - the government can eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains when the economy returns to growth) even if the overall deficit, owing to higher spending on unemployment benefits (the "automatic stabilisers"), is higher-than-expected. But it's telling that he chose to make it now. Of course, should economic growth continue to disappoint, there's every possibility that Osborne will miss his flagship pledge to eliminate the structural deficit by the end of this Parliament. As I've noted before, anaemic growth means a slower pace of deficit reduction.

Osborne also came close to admitting that the success of his strategy depends on loose monetary policy (interest rates and the exchange rate) compensating for tight fiscal policy (spending cuts and tax rises). He noted: "We of course have an independent monetary policy committee and tighter fiscal policy gives the monetary policy committee greater freedom to operate monetary policy."

Despite the growing clamour for interest rate rises from some quarters, it's clear that the Chancellor both hopes and expects rates to remain at record lows. But how will ministers respond if the Bank of England raises rates prematurely? What is their plan B? That question, sadly, was not put to Osborne today.

As an aside, it's worth noting that Osborne berated the BBC for its allegedly negative coverage of the economy. It's a complaint that almost any politician could make (the truth is that bad news makes for better copy) but Osborne is on less than solid ground here. An economy that was growing at an annual rate of 4 per cent when Labour left office has not grown for the past six months. If the BBC has focused on reporting bad news, it's partly because there really hasn't been much good news. But it's also unwise for the man who repeatedly talked down the British economy in opposition (erroneously describing it as "bankrupt"), to complain of others doing the same.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times