George Osborne presents the red box to cameras. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

George Osborne has made a big gamble - Labour must make sure he pays for it

Amidst the noise about a living wage and the Labour leadership race, George Osborne has left a big hostage to fortune. Labour must hold him to it.

Budget time, and the aftermath, is horrible for opposition staffers. 

Endless meetings with politicians asking ‘what do we expect in the budget’ and evenings drafting multiple briefings just in case of each plausible scenario. A day locked in a stuffy shadow cabinet room on neo-lithic laptops, neck deep in crisps and biscuits poring over budget documents. 

Days afterwards of impatient journalists demanding stories about it falling apart and endless talk of rabbits, shot foxes and gamechangers. This budget will have been no different. 

The brains of the operation are the same as at my first budget in 2011. John Wrathmell, Ali Moussavi and Maighread McCloskey can skin and fillet a budget with their eyes closed. They are the brightest of all the bright people at Labour headquarters. 

But the consequence of Labour's leadership hiatus is that for all the chatter about increases to the minimum wage a significant gamble George Osborne has taken has been missed.

I used to spend time gently suggesting to Shadow Cabinet colleagues that their quote on an obscure new tax break could wait while we made sure there was a single clear and coherent budget response from Labour. 

This time, Harriet Harman and Chris Leslie have as usual done a hugely professional job. But as an unavoidable consequence of a leadership election each of the candidates has also responded. So Labour’s response will seem fuzzy to both media and electorate. 

That presented an opportunity for George Osborne. Budgets always have fireworks - under which the Chancellor could have hoped to bury the scale of the bad news. He could have taken significantly tougher decisions than his targets required of him and thus left himself space to cope with the inevitable events that a Chancellor has to face. 

Instead he made what could be a defining decision of this Parliament - and of his career. 

He has still made some highly controversial and in my view unpleasant choices. But overall he has slowed the pace of deficit reduction to the point where even on his old fiscal mandate of a current surplus by 2017/8 he is only just meeting it. This is the mandate which until the planned vote in the autumn remains legally binding. 

Indeed – he is only meeting it because of his stealth tax rises including on pensions’ contributions, energy bills and insurance premiums. Despite having disavowed the need for any tax rises pre-election. 

Contrast this with June 2010 when he scrapped EMA, raised £12bn from VAT and in total announced £40bn in fiscal tightening by 2014/15. As a result when, in the face of events, he relaxed some of this he had bought himself the space to do so. And had left flexibility in his fiscal rules to get away with it. 

This time whilst broadly sticking to his plan of an absolute surplus within this Parliament he has used up almost all of the wiggle room he had booked in at the March budget. 

The new fiscal charter he intends to legislate for requires him to have an absolute surplus in 2019/20 - a specific date which is at least a change from any of his various fiscal plans in the last Parliament. 

Yet following yesterday’s budget he is projected to only just achieve surplus in that year of £10 billion. That may feel like a lot but over four years there are many ways things could go wrong. 

First, finding £17bn from departmental spending may sound less dramatic than the £41bn suggested in the March budget. But protecting defence, schools and DfiD spending – and adding £8bn to health spending – means the spending review and actually delivering it will be very tough. Not least as the services – social care, the police, sure start – most directly in the firing line have already borne the brunt over five years. 

Furthermore the OBR has highlighted the revenue risk of his tax raising measures. Greece and China are competing to be the most worrying economic headwind. And with productivity and exports being revised down further how confident can the Chancellor be of even the current anaemic growth forecasts for the coming years?   

If any or all of those things do go wrong then tax revenues will not deliver, welfare will overshoot and at some point George Osborne will be back in the commons asking people to vote for his fifth (yes, fifth) “long term” fiscal framework in two Parliaments. No doubt he will seek to make a virtue of it by claiming yet again to be laying a 'trap' for Labour. 

Clearly, the reverse could also happen. Jonathan Portes has pointed out that before a recession economic forecasters often under-estimate the coming shortfall in growth – but in recovery they often under-estimate the bounce back. 

If that latter happens then ‘Lucky General Osborne’ may find he can deliver his plans with room to spare. 

I suspect that George Osborne thinks that that is likely. That would explain the Tory kitchen sink approach to their manifesto with more than £20bn in unaccounted for spending commitments. And it would explain him leaving so little room for error in meeting the surplus he is now legislating for.

A political journalist pointed out to me this week that George Osborne’s former adviser Rupert Harrison was always keen when setting such targets to leave a bit of flexibility for the inevitable events which are the curse of politicians. 

In March I took a photo of our budget team in the Shadow Cabinet room knowing it would be my last there. I hoped it would also be George Osborne's last. I wonder if Rupert did the same knowing that whatever the result he was going to leave the Treasury. 

And I wonder whether he’s taken the Chancellor’s ‘luck’ with him. If so then something - tax cuts, two per cent of GDP defence spending, the NHS or his fiscal targets - will have to give. 

The job of the next Labour leader will be to make him pay for it. I can promise - having worked on the 2012 Omnishambles budget - that no matter how successful they are it won't be enough to win the next election on its own. And that their staff will still hate every minute of budget week.  

Karim Palant was head of policy to Ed Balls. 

Getty
Show Hide image

The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.