On Wednesday the Chancellor announced his plan, hailed by many as a “steady as she goes budget”. I confess some confusion as to how this might be a good thing, when according to most indicators “she” is steadily going to hell. I am also bemused by the attention this man’s policy announcements have attracted. It seems to me that intense dissemination of how these policies might work in practice, is tantamount to a spirited and detailed conversation about the quality of the stitching on the Emperor’s New Clothes.
The assumption that this Government will implement anything it says, let alone implement it successfully, flies in the face of evidence. Infrastructure projects which will not be completed during this Parliament (and some which will not even have started), Enterprize Zones which are still being set up, two years after being announced, and have delivered 5 per cent of the jobs projected, a Business Bank which is only now setting out a schedule for its creation, a Funding for Lending scheme (a replacement for the grand Loan Guarantee Scheme, scrapped after four months) which has actually seen lending drop dramatically, a Back To Work programme which is actually worse at getting people into jobs than doing nothing, a Green Investment Bank whose only action so far has been to appoint an expensive private consultant, a Right to Buy home ownership scheme which has delivered 1.5 per cent of the sales envisaged, a Big Society Bank for a Big Society which Cameron launched four times, that shows no signs of getting going and, in fact, hopes to have appointed a Chair by 2014! I could go on.
Why should anybody be interested in any big announcements this government makes? They are just that: announcements. With the economy stagnating for three years now, they are the equivalent of what I do when I am supposed to go out, but having a “fat day”; I try on every single outfit, having already decided to stay in and sob quietly, while having a large pepperoni pizza.
The only thing of interest in a budget nowadays is the actual data of how the Chancellor has performed – not his promises of how much better he is about to. In that respect, the budget was fascinating. Many commentators have assessed thoroughly and forensically the failures of this Government on growth, stagnating wages, lending, future borrowing et al – the IFS’s review does so as well as any. I am more interested in the two items claimed by the government as successes; the two planks to which this drowning Chancellor is clinging: the borrowing rate and the employment figures.
On these, I offer two short sentences from the OBR’s budget report.
On the Chancellor’s attempt to show – “by hook or by crook” according to the IFS – that we borrowed less this year compared to last, para. 4.27 explains that “the Government has taken action to ensure that central government departments spend less in 2012-13” and this includes “a number of elements”. Here is one: “payments that were due to be made late in the current financial year (for example payments to international institutions), but which are being delayed into 2013-14.”
Read that again. Take it in. In order to keep his head above water, the Chancellor has asked Government departments to delay payments which were due this financial year until after 1 April. These payments, of course, still have to be made. Just not right now. The direct fiscal equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LALALALA NOT LISTENING”. And this man, with his Delboy approach to state finance, is the person entrusted with the long-term health of the country’s economy.
On the employment rate, many have expressed doubts about the claim repeated with almost drummerlike monotony that “one million new private sector jobs have been created”. We know, for instance, that there has been an astonishing surge of hundreds of thousands of people who show as “self-employed”. We know there have been strange transfers of public service jobs directly to the private sector, as support services are privatised in every department.
The OBR hints at these irregularities in their executive summary: “The labour market continues to surprise on the upside, despite the continued weakness of GDP growth.” As a former civil servant, I would be tempted to read that as “there is something really dodgy about these figures”. Then, at para. 3.108, which talks about “people employed in government supported training and employment programmes” comes the confirmation: “Of the total increase in employment in 2012, compared to 2011, around 14 per cent reflects increased participation in those programmes.”
People on unpaid internships, training schemes, apprenticeships and workfare schemes, are counted as employed. One hundred and forty thousand of them are part of the Government’s job creation success story.
I never understood Hollywood’s obsession with the Evil Genius as the film villain of choice. It has always been clear that, given a position of power, an Clueless Idiot has infinitely more potential to cause harm. What I find astonishing is that Conservative MPs, many of whom are honourable men and women and all of whom are obsessed with fiscal responsibility, have not yet grabbed this man by his expensively tailored lapels and thrown him in the Thames.