Osborne's failure could cost the Tories a majority

The Chancellor will no longer be able to wipe the slate clean and offer tax cuts.

This morning's papers make grim reading for George Osborne. Unemployment is at a 17-year high and is likely to rise further. Growth is now expected to be just 1 per cent this year and next. Worst of all for the Chancellor, a deficit hawk, the government will be forced to borrow around £109bn more than forecast at the time of Spending Review and billions more than Alistair Darling would have. In addition, it is thought that Osborne will miss his target to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15 - the part of the deficit that remains even after growth has returned to normal - owing to the fact that the output gap - the difference between potential GDP and actual GDP - was smaller than thought. For the Tories, whose political fortunes are intertwined with those of economy, these are troubling times.

Osborne's pledge to eliminate the structural deficit in one parliament was based on a political timetable, not an economic one. By 2015, Osborne envisaged that the Tories would be able to boast that they had claned up "the mess" left by Labour - a powerful political narrative - and offer cuts in personal taxation. But anaemic growth, higher unemployment and, consequently, higher borrowing mean that this is an increasingly distant dream. Osborne's ultimate goal - a Tory majority - is slipping out of reach. As Peter Oborne writes in his Telegraph column this morning:

If the Chancellor gets it right, David Cameron's Conservative Party will probably command a majority after the next general election. If Osborne gets it wrong, his friend Cameron will go down in history as an Old Etonian version of Gordon Brown: a one-term prime minister who never won a general election ... Eighteen months after David Cameron entered Downing Street, it can be stated with stone cold certainty that George Osborne's economic strategy is not working.

Despite Labour's consistent lead in the opinion polls, there is a default assumption in Westminster that the next election is likely to result in a Tory majority. But several factors mean that this is no longer the case. The Tories continue to struggle in the north, where Labour leads by 28 points, and in Scotland, where Labour leads by 16 points. Ukip's recent surge in support - the party is on 6 per cent in the latest YouGov poll - is also troubling Tory strategists. Nigel Farage's party cost the Tories up to 21 seats at the last election (there were 21 constituencies in which the Ukip vote exceeded the Labour majority) and could cost them even more next time round. Finally, as Andrew Cooper, Cameron's pollster, knows all too well, the Tories remain the most toxic party. While 70 per cent of the electorate say they would be prepared to vote for Labour, just 58 per cent say they would consider voting Conservative. As ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie noted recently, "In order to win an election we need to convert a good three quarters of our potential voters while Labour only needs to capture a much smaller proportion."

The hope among the Tories was that the success of Osborne's economic plan would override all of this. A grateful electorate would rush to thank the Iron Chancellor for balancing the books. But the near-collapse of growth means that there is no chance of Osborne wiping the slate clean. The question the electorate, facing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s, will ask is "what was all the pain for?" The Tories had better have a very good answer.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder