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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era