George Osborne’s economic policy is based on lies

The budget is the fiscal equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘LALALALA NOT LISTENING’.

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.

British Finance Minister George Osborne poses for pictures outside 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder