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Osborne’s very limited apology

The problem with the Budget wasn't merely presentational.

By George Eaton

George Osborne is proud of his reputation as the Conservatives’ pre-eminent political strategist, so it will have been painful for him to admit that he mishandled the politics of the Budget – the event that precipitated the “omnishambles”. In today’s Mail on Sunday, he concedes that the decision to abolish the 50p tax rate overshadowed the increase in the personal allowance: “The way the Budget was presented meant this message (helping low-earners) wasn’t heard. I take responsibility for that.”

But as Douglas Alexander argued on The Andrew Marr Show, the problem with the Budget wasn’t (or wasn’t only) one of style but one of substance. It was impossible for Osborne to deliver a Budget that cut taxes for the top one per cent of earners without this tarnishing every other measure. As apologies go, then, the Chancellor’s is a very limited one. Nor will he accept that his excessive austerity measures bear any responsibility for the double-dip. Appearing on the Marr show this morning, he repeated the familiar mantra that the eurozone crisis and the 2008 financial crisis were wholly to blame.

In his analysis of the local election results, he rightly rejected the absurd claim by some Conservative backbenchers that David Cameron’s support for gay marriage and House of Lords reform led to voters deserting the Tories (“simply not the case”). Osborne, a genuine social liberal, also dismissed the claim in today’s Sunday Times (£) that the government is backtracking on gay marriage. There was never due to be legislation in the Queen’s Speech and the consultation period isn’t over. “We are socially progressive country and it’s something I suppport but let’s hear what people have to say,” he said. At the same time, he strongly hinted that the government has little desire to pursue House of Lords reform. “Parliament can discuss these issues, Parliament is very good at debating constitutional reform but it is certainly not my priority, it is not the priority of the government,” he said. There will be no cast-iron commitment to Lords reform in the Queen’s Speech.

The most intriguing section of the interview, however, was on today’s French election. Some on the right have portrayed François Hollande as a dangerous socialist (as opposed to a moderate social democrat) but Osborne observed: “he’s not anti-austerity actually. He has not departed from the message that you’ve got to deal with the French deficit.” Indeed, Hollande has pledged to eliminate his country’s 5.2 per cent deficit by 2017, just a year later than Nicolas Sarkozy. The irony is that were Hollande a British politician, his commitment to a more balanced plan and to fiscal stimulus would see Osborne dismiss him as a “deficit denier”.

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