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

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear