Whatever George Osborne may lack, it isn’t chutzpah. In his conference speech he took credit for the economic recovery, despite opposing the fiscal stimulus, and glossed over the risk of a double-dip recession. He declared that “those with the most need to pay more”, ignoring the fact that that the poorest 10 per cent were the biggest losers from his emergency Budget. And he claimed that Britain had avoided the fate of Ireland, a prediction that may yet return to haunt him.
The unexpected announcement of a cap on benefits went down extremely well with the grassroots as Osborne pledged that “no family on out-of-work benefits will get more than the average family gets from going out to work.” But his speech was tellingly short on detail. It was left to Osborne’s advisers to fill in the blanks and we learned that the cap would be set at £500 a week after tax and affect around 50,000 people.
The pledge undoubtedly has more to do with politics than economics, with Osborne’s own advisers admiting that it’s largely “symbolic”, but in some cases — notably housing benefit — it could hit families hard, with most expected to lose an average of £93 a week.
Despite Osborne’s bullish and confidence performance, today’s speech was always going to feel like a minor affair next to the looming spending review, when the largest cuts since the Geddes Axe of the 1920s will be announced. Today, the Chancellor attempted what’s best described as austerity with a human face. He insisted that he was a one-nation Conservative and a passionate believer in public services. But the real test will be whether anyone still believes him this time next year.