George Osborne: like Fernando Torres, only less effective

While the Chancellor waffled on about how “we are all in this together”, it was announced that the Queen was receiving a 16 per cent boost to her Government grant and the likes of Torres will get a staggering tax break next year. That is a lot of "spare r

 

I must admit some excitement as George Osborne declared “One of your company slogans is a very fitting catchphrase for what I want to talk about” to the assembled crowd of Morrisons employees. I was quite looking forward to discovering precisely how “STOP! Did you get the quiche?” related to our fiscal policy. Imagine my disappointment when the slogan in question turned out to be “Every Penny Matters”.

In a speech hailed by some as the Chancellor’s “man of the people” moment – presumably because he appeared to have gone to sleep Julie Andrews and woken up Dick Van Dyke – he proceeded to outline why his savage attack on the safety net that is our system of welfare was entirely justified. It says everything about this man, that welfare reforms which he resisted at the start of his tenure because of cost – so much so, that Iain Duncan Smith was rumoured to be on the verge of resignation – are now claimed as his own. What changed? They turned out to be quite popular.

According to Osborne, anyone who expresses concern about these reforms is guilty of spouting “ill-informed rubbish” and “shrill, headline-seeking nonsense”. This includes Crisis, Shelter, the National Housing Federation, the Children’s Society, Citizens Advice, Disability Rights UK, Mencap, Scope, the National Autistic Society, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Disability Alliance and naturally, that shrill cesspit of communism, the Church of England.

“This month, nine out of ten working households will be better off as a result of the changes we are making.” At the risk of being shrill and ill-informed, what about last month? Or next month? What about non-working households, like pensioners? What about the tenth household in Osborne’s carefully chosen equation? How about some figures to support these claims? A head for detailed figures, terrifyingly, does not appear to be the Chancellor’s strong suit.

“In 2010 alone, payments to working age families cost £90bn,” he said. “That means that one in every six pounds of the tax that working people like you pay was going on working age benefits”, he continued. The written version of his speech circulated earlier, on the other hand, claimed that such payments “cost £75bn” and that this represented “one in every seven pounds”. These two versions are not even internally consistent. The first means that the relevant tax take in 2010 was £540bn (90x6). The second suggests it was £525bn (75x7). The man in charge of our economy is making up figures, give or take £15bn pounds. Let’s hope credit rating agencies were not watching too closely.

Not five minutes later, Osborne went on to mount an emotional defence of the reduction of the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p as “an economic essential”. “In a modern global economy,” he explained, “where people can move anywhere in the world, we cannot have a top rate of tax that discourages people from living here.” As always, it is when you take these arguments from the general to the specific, that their true nature is revealed.

Osborne watched Chelsea play Manchester United on Monday. He saw John Terry, Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Eden Hazard do their stuff. The combined wages of these six players are a staggering £1,035,000 per week. These six players – on their wages alone, never mind other sources of income – were handed a tax break of roughly £2.5m next year by the very Chancellor applauding them vacuously. That is roughly 110 teachers; it is roughly 120 nurses; it is roughly 15,000 “spare bedroom subsidies”.

And such premiership royalty are in very good company. While the Chancellor waffled on about how “we are all in this together”, it was announced that the Queen was receiving a 16 per cent boost to her Government grant. Not to sound unpatriotic, but being “in this together” would seem to imply we all have to make sacrifices. It is utterly obscene, at a time of economic stagnation during which the state is imposing untold misery on millions of those who can least afford it, for the person at the very top of the pile to be getting a £5m raise.

That is roughly 220 teachers; it is roughly 240 nurses; it is roughly 30,000 “spare bedroom subsidies” in exchange for the extra reward given to the council tenant with the most spare bedrooms in the country.

It seems, every one of my pennies matters; but not theirs. We’re in it, all right. Just not together.

George Osborne. 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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle