George Osborne with his special adviser Rupert Harrison at No. 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Budget revealed Osborne's 35% strategy

Rather than seeking to craft a new electoral coalition, the Tories are just managing decline.

Under both Gordon Brown and George Osborne, the Budget has become the ultimate expression of the electoral priorities of a government. George Osborne’s giveaways to wealthy pensioners are truly telling of what the Chancellor worries about for 2015. The answer, it seems, is the Tory base.

All parties face a fundamental choice at elections between managing decline by trying to cling on to as much of their existing vote as possible or shaping a new electoral coalition. New Labour successfully won re-election twice by managing its declining vote share, whilst President Obama created a new electoral coalition between 2008 and 2012.

The big choice for Conservative strategy was whether to reassemble their 2010 coalition of support and craft a policy offer to bring them back, or to look to a new pool of voters, particularly Labour-inclined blue collar voters who either voted Labour in 2010 or sat out the election whilst still self-identifying as Labour. These are Robert Halfon’s voters. They are the voters that Jon Cruddas, Labour’s blue collar brahmin, was brought in to capture. Their opinions might be considered conservative on matters of immigration or welfare but progressive on public services or bashing the banks.

Blue collar voters hold the key to breaking out of the mid-30s poll ratings that currently make for the ceiling of Tory support or the floor of Labour’s. By increasing turnout amongst this group, Labour can reach the 40s. Equally, by flipping Labour’s working class support, the Tories could head for a majority. Beyond bread (beer) and circuses (bingo), the adoption of Halfonism would have been a truly dangerous strategic move by Osborne against Labour. Truly radical "Little Guy" Conservatism comes with a blend of Jesse Norman’s attacks on crony capitalism, Boris Johnson’s verve for housebuilding and Robert Halfon’s embrace of trade unionism.

If you want to know what Labour truly fears then there it is.

But "Beer and Bingo" is at best superficial engagement with blue collar voters falsely premised on the belief that they can be bought off with a good night out, rather than see their deeply held concerns about schools, hospitals, wages and housing addressed. What’s more, it risks reinforcing the perception that many voters have with the Tory high command as out of touch and lacking empathy.

Osborne has instead sought to manage decline. By seeking to win back Conservative-minded pensioners, Osborne aims only to bring Tory poll numbers out of the low 30s and into the mid-30s. He seeks to replay 2010. As Mike Smithson of Political Betting noted, some 58 per cent of UKIP supporters are over-55 and the vast majority of them are Tory 2010 voters.

Thus the Budget will produce more than a sugar high for Tory poll ratings. It should lock in a 2-3 per cent increase at a cost to UKIP that lasts through 2015. But it comes at the cost of the other more interesting, and potentially more rewarding, option: the blue collar appeal. Beer and bingo were crumbs from the table. Slashing income tax, building (as well as selling) council houses and raising the minimum wage to £7 was the alternative.

But Osborne made his choice and the Tory ceiling of the mid-30s is set for next year - and with it their last hopes for a majority.

Marcus Roberts is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society

Marcus Roberts is an executive project director at YouGov. 

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left