George Osborne holding the red box before leaving 11 Downing Street to deliver his Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Budget showed Osborne’s greatest skill: the ability to rebrand his failure as success

The Chancellor has made a virtue of coalition government and of missing his deficit targets. 

For five years, George Osborne has been managing failure. The Chancellor’s sixth Budget, like its predecessors, was delivered in coalition; the presence of Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander on the government front bench is a permanent reminder of how the Conservatives fell short at the last general election. As his party’s chief strategist in 2010, Osborne continues to live in the shadow of that campaign.

This political failure was followed by an economic one. Osborne’s original ambition was to eliminate the structural deficit in a single term. The collapse of growth after he entered office forced him to postpone this goal. Higher-than-forecast borrowing cost the UK its triple-A credit rating, the metric that he had adopted as the defining test of his economic credibility. Few politicians have recovered from such a gap between promise and delivery.

Osborne’s skill has been to transform this political base metal into gold. He has been the great alchemist of this parliament. The Chancellor made a virtue of coalition government by co-opting the Lib Dems’ best ideas – increasing the personal tax allowance, granting new freedoms over pensions – and aggressively rebranding them as Conservative achievements. The Tories’ junior partners protest indignantly, reminding voters that David Cameron told Clegg during the first 2010 leaders’ debate that the country could not “afford” to “take every­one out of their first £10,000 of income tax”. (Osborne's Budget increased the threshold to £10,800.) But, as Ronald Reagan observed: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

When the near-disappearance of growth almost halted deficit reduction, Osborne chose not to impose additional fiscal tightening, instead redefining austerity as a two-term project. Labour has been left unsure whether to applaud the Chancellor for adopting the more moderate path it advocated (“a victory for sensible Keynesian thinking” was how his shadow, Ed Balls, recently described it to me) or to denounce him for failing on his own terms. In both cases, it has been forced to concede that it, too, would impose austerity after the election, an admission that has corroded its left-wing support. There are some Conservatives who wonder aloud whether greater deficit reduction would have been more politically hazardous, liberating Labour to promise the return of big spending.

Osborne’s greatest act of conjury, as ­fiscal boundaries have shifted, has been to entrench an image of himself as a figure of unbending constancy. Aides say that the Chancellor, whose once-poor approval ­ratings now exceed those of the three main party leaders, is congratulated by the public on “sticking to the plan” during his hard-hat tours. Like Margaret Thatcher (who was sometimes for turning), he knows that, in politics, appearance matters more than reality.

The truth is that Osborne has changed. Midway through the parliament, after the humbling experience of his 2012 “omni­shambles” Budget, he began to remake himself as a more complex and sophisticated politician. Osborne now speaks of the state as an ally as often as he does of it as an enemy and compares himself to Michael Heseltine. He has resurrected the cause of “full employment” (albeit more loosely defined than in previous decades), championed increases in the minimum wage (which will rise by 3 per cent, to £6.70 an hour, from October) and begun the construction of a “northern powerhouse” to challenge London’s hegemony. This ideological rebalancing is driven by Osborne’s Huddersfield-born, comprehensive-educated adviser Neil O’Brien, who wrote of the need for the Tories to decontaminate their brand in urban regions during his time as director of Policy Exchange. That Osborne embraced such an interesting thinker is evidence, say Tory MPs, of his intellectual restlessness, contrasting him with the dependable but unimaginative Cameron.

But like a rock star whose new album includes traditional material for older fans, the Chancellor is playing some familiar tunes. He has revived his 2007 pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m. It was this policy that spooked Gordon Brown into abandoning plans for an early election and that earned Osborne his reputation as a strategic grandmaster. But the politics is not uncomplicated for him. If the measure will appeal to aspirational voters, the decision to prioritise the reduction of a tax paid by just 4.9 per cent of estates risks reinforcing the Tories’ status as the party of the privileged. Few policies more sharply contradict Michael Gove’s exhortation to be “warriors for the dispossessed” and to penalise “the undeserving rich”.

The Budget promised less post-election austerity than implied by the Autumn Statement, as Osborne sought to neutralise Labour's 1930s attack line. But because of his ambition of a surplus by the end of the next parliament, accompanied by no further tax rises, a fiscal chasm remains between his plans and those of Labour. Ed Balls’s decision to leave room to borrow to invest would give him nearly £30bn of additional spending each year.

It was partly the fear of massacred public services that denied the Tories a majority in 2010, in the most propitious circumstances. Osborne’s wager is that their unexpected resilience will persuade voters that further austerity is tolerable; that fear of a “tax bombshell” and “economic chaos” under Labour will predominate.

When the Tories entered office, some doubted that this question would even arise. The belief was that they would be evicted from government on a wave of popular outrage over the cuts. But the wave never came. Osborne has managed failure well indeed. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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