The Queen takes a swipe at Gordon Brown over gold sale

George Osborne was amused as the Queen said that "regrettably" the UK's gold bars "don't belong to us".

Unlike Prince Charles, the Queen usually avoids making political interventions, but she lapsed while visiting the cabinet today. Walking along the line of ministers inside No. 10, she reached George Osborne (see video above) and, in a reference to her recent visit to the Bank of England, remarked, "I saw all the gold bars, which regrettably somebody said don't belong to us."

An amused Osborne replied: "Some of them were sold, but we've still got some left." The politically-minded Chancellor resisted the temptation to add "sold by Gordon Brown". Between 1999 and 2002, Brown sold 60 per cent of the UK's gold reserves (395 tonnes) for an average of $275.6 an ounce, only to see prices subsequently rise to above $1,600 (£986).

In 2010, Osborne declared: "Gordon Brown's decision to sell off our gold reserves at the bottom of the market cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds. It was one of the worst economic judgements ever made by a chancellor." At a time when his own strategy has failed dramatically, Osborne will no doubt be pleased to discover that the Queen appears to agree.

The Queen sits next to David Cameron as she attends the government's weekly cabinet meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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