Don't expect Osborne to play a "trump card" at the Budget

The Chancellor's fiscal conservatism means he won't deliver the tax cuts demanded by the right or the spending increases demanded by the left.

On all sides of the coalition, next month's Budget is viewed as the last chance to make a significant difference to growth before the general election. Conservative MPs are urging George Osborne to make radical tax cuts (this week's NS leader looked at Robert Halfon's call for a reinstated 10p tax band; others are pushing for dramatic cuts to corporation tax and capital gains tax), while the Lib Dems are arguing for a major increase in infrastructure spending. As the Times's Rachel Sylvester writes in her column today, the pressure is on Osborne to play "a trump card" when he steps up to the despatch box on 20 March.

But even with Britain facing a triple-dip recession at worst and prolonged stagnation at best, it is doubtful that he will deliver. While Tory MPs argue that any tax cuts would be self-financing and, therefore, that Osborne could act without abandoning his commitment to deficit reduction, the Chancellor does not accept their logic. As he remarked during a recent event at the US-based Manhattan Institute: 

I am more of a Thatcherite than a Reaganite when it comes to tax policy...I'm a fiscal conservative and I don't want to take risks with my public finances on an assumption that we are at some point in the Laffer curve. What I would say is let's see the proof in the pudding, in other words. I'm a low tax conservative, I want to reduce taxes but I basically think you have to do the hard work of reducing the cost of government to pay for those lower taxes.

For Osborne, tax cuts follow successful deficit reduction; they do not precede it.  

On the spending side, while it's possible and even probable that Osborne will raise planned spending on infrastructure (as he did at last year's Autumn Statement), he will only do so by squeezing current spending, limiting the effectiveness of any stimulus. 

To make a difference at this stage, Osborne would finally need to accept the Keynesian argument that governments should intentionally run deficits at times of economic stagnation. But borrowing for growth would be a tacit admission that his nemesis, Ed Balls, was right and he was wrong. And, for largely political reasons, that is something Osborne is not prepared to do. 

George Osborne attends the launch of the OECD's latest economic survey of the UK at the Treasury. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.