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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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