The real message of Osborne's Budget: as you were, only poorer

The Chancellor's gamble remains that the growth will come, that the pain will be followed by gain. But he has been wrong every time so far.

It always takes a few days for a clear picture to emerge of the economic measures that the Chancellor puts in his Budget. The Treasury is in the business of pushing its preferred analysis to the front; journalists and opposition parties are in the business of ferreting around for buried bodies out the back.

In this case we’ll have to wait even longer than usual because George Osborne’s fourth budget is really the first half of a story to be continued in the spending review in June. Today’s measures are advertised as fiscally neutral – meaning any tax cuts are balanced with rises elsewhere or equivalent cuts to spending. The Treasury says there is money available for some of the Chancellor’s giveaways from departmental “underspend”, from a crackdown on “aggressive tax avoidance” and from previously announced adjustments to the inheritance tax threshold. But the reality is that Osborne wanted to finish his Budget speech with the overall level of taxation lower than when he started, which he did – corporation tax, beer duty, fuel duty, the income tax threshold and employer national insurance contributions are the headline reductions. And in the absence of growth and no certainty that Excehquer revenues will rise any time soon, the pressure of desperately chasing a receding deficit-reduction target necessarily falls on the departments whose budgets are not “ring-fenced”.

The spending review will impose another £11.5bn in cuts on top of savings made in previous spending rounds and budgets. The negotiations between the Treasury and ministers and between the two coalition parties over what that means in practice and who takes the pain will dominate politics over the next three months. Tory ministers as much as Lib Dems are starting to get seriously Bolshie in resisting the axe blows raining down on their heads.

So what we heard today was above all a statement of political positioning by the Chancellor. He has no intention of conceding that his own policies are in any way responsible for the parlous state of the national finances (deficit reduction stalled; debt rising) so he is obliged to pretend that the broad outline of the strategy is the right one and that only extraneous and transient factors are to blame for disappointing economic performance.

Osborne was careful in his preamble to make sure the latest round of turbulence in the eurozone was well advertised. The mangy dog of a continental crisis, he seemed to be saying, ate his growth homework. This is consistent with conversations I’ve had with people in the Treasury in recent months who insist that the measures taken by the coalition so far are exactly the right ones to “create the conditions for growth” and that the only problem is that the growth itself is just a bit later arriving than they had hoped. I think a lot of them genuinely believe this to be the case and that good times – or at least better times – are around the corner. Then, like passengers queuing for a bus in the freezing rain, British voters will be so grateful for the arrival of a nice warm recovery that they will sink happily into their seats, forget the anger they were nursing just moments before and thank the Tory driver on polling day.

With that scenario in mind, the Chancellor was today sending signals of encouragement to people whose support the Tories desperately need but who might be losing faith. That is, in essence, people on low and middle incomes, struggling to get by on stagnant wages, with onerous childcare costs, worrying about how they might look after ageing parents and generally weighed down by the rising cost of living.

What Osborne’s study of opinion polls and focus groups will have told him is that many of these people are surprisingly stoical about the economy. They accept the Tory argument that Britain collectively “lived beyond its means” and they see honesty about the need for painful restraint on spending as the starting point for any politician wanting to be taken seriously as a manager of the economy. But separately, confidence in the coalition to run anything at all is slipping badly. The general aura of policy reversal, shambles, disunity and the gloom of prolonged stagnation has seen voters drifting away from the Tories, some to Labour, some to Ukip, many to floating abstention.

In particular, Osborne has his eye on voters who once flocked to the Thatcher message of self-reliance and enterprise – the “aspiration nation”. He wants to revive the idea that the Tory party is primarily for people who want to get on in life (as opposed to the current hazardous perception that it is run for people who have already arrived and are rolling in privilege). Hence the emphasis on mortgage underwriting devices to help people both get onto the property ladder and advance further up it; hence accelerating the rise in personal income tax allowance; hence also the emphasis on helping small enterprises take on more staff; hence the mini-favours on beer duty and fuel. This is a budget that is meant to feel like the Chancellor buying a pint for a family man with a van in a marginal seat in Essex and saying “I know it’s hard, but we’ll get there in the end.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence that we are going anywhere at all. The underlying gamble is the same is it has been in Osborne’s previous three budgets – that the growth will come, that the pain will be followed by gain. He has been wrong every time so far and each time the net effect of cuts in services, freezes in wages and rising inflation is to make life that bit harder for the people the Chancellor is supposed to be wooing. The real message to most British people is bleak and simple: as you were, only poorer.

George Osborne poses for pictures outside 11 Downing Street in London, on March 20, 2013, as he prepares to unveil the Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war