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

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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