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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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