Osborne's "no money left" claim could backfire

The Chancellor's old tactic is now a reminder of his failure.

Liam Byrne's famous valedictory note to David Laws ("there's no money left") must rank as one of the least helpful contributions by a New Labour cabinet minister. His quip perpetuated two myths: that Britain could not afford to borrow for growth and that the deficit was the result of overspending by the Brown government, rather than a dramatic fall in tax revenues caused by the financial crisis.

It's a line that George Osborne, under pressure from all sides to cut taxes, has now reprised. Today's stark Telegraph front page (Osborne: UK has run out of money) leads on the Chancellor's assertion on Sky News that "the British government has run out of money because all the money was spent in the good years". In other words, don't expect a big Budget giveaway. Any tax cuts will be paid for by tax rises or spending cuts elsewhere.

His stance is nothing new. Ever since his days as shadow chancellor, Osborne has opposed what he calls "unfunded tax cuts". But it's his rhetoric that's striking. Ahead of his third Budget as Chancellor, the claim that the "British government has run out of money" could hinder Osborne as much as it helps him. Labour and Tory MPs alike will note that the government is set to borrow around £158bn more than previously forecast. If the Chancellor can borrow to meet the cost of unemployment (in the form of higher welfare payments), why not borrow for growth? (Britain's bond yields remain at record lows).

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, for instance, has said that Osborne could cut taxes by £10bn without triggering a bond market revolt and a rise in interest rates.

As Tory MP David Ruffley said of a temporary VAT cut:

Even if we can't find the money for tax cuts from public spending savings, we could add it to the deficit and it is not going to send the markets into a tizzy, I don't think anyone really believes that. The markets will not go haywire if there was a modest loosening in borrowing in the short run if it was for the right reason.

From the Tory right, here's Roger Helmer MEP:

Memo to Osborne: We're not asking for "debt-fuelled tax cuts". We want modest pro-growth cuts (50% rate, NI holidays) that cd cost nothing.

Tory backbenchers, many of whom share Arthur Laffer's belief that tax cuts are self-financing, will have little time for the Chancellor's excuses.

Osborne's decision to blame Britain's economic woes on "the mess" left by Labour has served him well politically. But it is subject to diminishing returns. Conservative cabinet ministers who trot out this line on Question Time are now greeted with boos, not applause. After nearly two years at the helm, Osborne cannot avoid his share of responsibility for the economy. What was once a reminder of Labour's profligacy, is now a reminder of his failure.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.