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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.