Osborne's crown slips

The Tories are jumpy. The budget was meant to be unapologetically pro-business, instead it was a bun

What precisely is the mistake George Osborne has made with yesterday's Budget? Clearly something went wrong. Even if the Chancellor anticipated a rough ride for cutting income tax for the very rich, I doubt he imagined a barrage of brutal headlines like these.

The newspapers this morning are full of commentary about who won, who lost and who is better off, with a justifiable emphasis on the rather sneaky tax-free allowance raid on people who are about to retire. (Only by really testing the elasticity of the metaphor is it a "Granny Tax" and yet the label has a deadly resonance for the government.)

Osborne could have got away with this had he prepared the ground with arguments about generational distribution. There are plenty of politicians and commentators who might have been coaxed into reluctant recognition that, yes, pensioners have been spared much of the pain of austerity so far and, alright, the baby boom cohort that is about to retire can on aggregate afford it. That still doesn't avoid the fact that plenty can't. (Most MPs will concede privately that too many rich pensioners get universal benefits - winter fuel, bus pass etc - but that the politics of taking something away from the most diligent voters in the land are just too grim to contemplate.) The point is that the measure was a difficult sell, not an impossible one.

Osborne's mistake wasn't in freezing the pensioner allowance, it was in not realising it would be the story of the day - and the Treasury accidentally made sure it was the story of the day by leaking the rest of the Budget in advance. That had two awkward consequences. First, it gave Ed Miliband ample time to prepare a feisty response. Second, it hyped up journalists' expectations that there would be something extra - some really pyrotechnic surprise. Or, put another way, the Lobby was all fired up rifling through the Chancellor's hat looking for a rabbit and the one they found had been skinned and turned into a pair of fur-lined gloves for higher rate taxpayers. Oops.

Even then, a day of bad headlines doesn't kill a Chancellor. He can mobilise his troops - Osborne has a phalanx of loyal MPs who will take to the studios in his defence. If need be, he can u-turn. This was a tactical cock-up, not a strategic blunder. But I think it hints at something that really might be a longer term problem. The underlying argument in the Budget - the one the government thought it would spend the ensuing hours and days thrashing out - was that the rich should pay their way and that it just so happens that high rates of income tax are a rubbish means to that end.

It is an old argument and one in which ministers can be sure of finding moral and intellectual support throughout the Conservative party and much of the press. Osborne was quite prepared to have it out in public on those terms, mobilising in his defence the claim that rich people were being made to pay in other ways. (Stamp duty, anti-avoidance measures etc.) The pensioner allowance freeze muddies that debate. It risks looking like a uniquely sadistic kind of redistribution from old to opulent, frail to the flashman.

A big part of the government's problem is that the pre-Budget spin actively encouraged that kind of analysis. The Treasury and the Lib Dems set the day up as a test of how effectively the rich would be made to cough up for austerity. It is much harder to retreat from that moral imperative than it is to u-turn on individual policies.

That is one reason why Conservatives are feeling jumpy this morning. Can they really go through the rest of this parliament advertising their policies in terms of how effectively they heap the burden on the top tier of earners? Is that why they came into politics? Will it be credible even if they try? This is why, as one government advisor said to me today, "George Osborne's strategic crown has slipped a bit." Many Tories are asking themselves where this wilful tycoon-phobia is taking them. Cutting the 50p rate was meant to be a bold, unashamedly conservative move, signalling support for enterprise and wealth generation. It has ended up looking like a bungled apology for the fact that the rich are hard to tax.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage