Until recently, the received wisdom was that George Osborne was losing the economic battle (the economy has shrunk by 0.4 per cent since the Spending Review) but winning the political war. Labour’s poll lead seemed fragile (remember Cameron’s veto bounce?) and the Tories were still more trusted on the economy. Now, as the sudden U-turn on the “pasty tax” confirms, the politics have became problematic too.
The coalition’s previous U-turns – on the forests sell-off, school milk, Bookstart, school sports, anonymity for rape suspects and NHS direct – were at least made from a position of relative strength. The government could plausibly argue that it was “listening” to public opinion and observe that U-turns are an occupational hazard of coalitions. But after the “omnishambles” precipitated by Osborne’s Budget, the latest policy reversals (on the pasty tax, the caravan tax and secret courts) feel like a desperate (and likely worthless) attempt to regain public approval. They will also create an unrealistic hope among voters of U-turns on similarly controversial issues.
In the case of Osborne, we can expect the U-turns to provoke another series of jibes about “the part-time Chancellor” (Osborne is both Chancellor and the Tories’ chief election strategist). Had he burned a little more midnight oil, rather than jetting off, less than a week before the Budget, to join David Cameron’s US junket, some of the damage could have been prevented.
Yet Osborne’s decision to cut the 50p tax rate (which polls showed even Tory voters supported) meant the Budget was always destined to be a political disaster. Voters always resent new taxes but Osborne’s willingness to cut taxes for the 1 per cent meant their resentment was even greater. “We are not all in this together” was the conclusion they rightly drew.
As a result, the public are also now less willing to give Osborne the benefit of the doubt on deficit reduction and growth – the Chancellor’s previous stronghold. A poll in today’s Independent finds that seven out of 10 people want Osborne to adopt a “plan B” to give growth priority over cuts, while elsewhere, YouGov shows that Labour maintains its new-found lead on the economy. The Chancellor, once regarded as the natural successor to Cameron, will struggle to restore his political reputation.