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31 October 2018

Even George Osborne has forgotten what his time at the Treasury was really like

Old politicians tend to believe their own propaganda, and the former Chancellor is no exception. 

By Stephen Bush

Politicians tend to want to turn themselves into brands, and for understandable reasons. John McDonnell is trying to sell himself as a sensible, bank manager-like figure in order to persuade British voters that he can be trusted to run the nation’s finances. Gordon Brown wanted to establish himself both as a prudent Chancellor and as Tony Blair’s conscience to ease his path to Downing Street. And George Osborne, too, wanted to establish himself as a brand and not just AN Other Politician in order to service David Cameron’s electoral strategy.

The image he cultivated was of a tough and hardheaded pragmatist making difficult decisions in the national interest to balance the books. That image clearly worked for the Conservative Party, at least in 2015. But the danger is that politicians tend to believe their own hype – and that risk is more acute in the Tory party, which tends to canonise its departed leaders. (Labour politicians do the same thing, of course; but that party tends to bury its own past rather than praise it, so it has less of an effect.)

In reality, Osborne made decisions that were nakedly political and in some cases extended the deficit rather than closed it. For most people who voted Conservative, austerity happened to somebody else. As Anoosh notes, that is particularly acute when you look at the welfare bill, in which spending on pensioners increased on every measure, while spending on everyone else fell sharply. The threshold raise (originally a Liberal Democrat proposal but one the Conservatives have become enthusiastic supporters of) and the freeze in fuel duty both meant that Osborne failed in his stated mission of balancing the books by the end of the 2015 parliament. Of course, without the fuel duty freeze and the threshold raise, it is hard to see how the government would have survived, as the pressure on wages would have become more acute.

And if you look at the decisions taken in Osborne’s budgets, particularly in the back end of the parliament, the reality is that he did spend freely in order to win the 2015 election. He was considerably less austere than he pretended to be.  

Why does this matter now? Anoosh has covered off the policy implications so I’m not going to labour them here. It matters because Osborne was also, as he noted in his Newsnight interview, a major architect of the most successful decade for the Conservatives since 1992, a period in which they posted their best postwar performance for seats gained in a single night in 2010 and their first majority for 22 years in 2015. For much of that time, in opposition and in government, they dominated the political debate.

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Understandably given their current predicament, Conservative MPs look back at that time and are keenly interested in the political judgements of a man who was so integral to an era of Tory success. But his prescriptions rewrite both his own history and that of David Cameron, saying that the Conservative Party could not win the 2017 election by trying to “out-Ukip Ukip” and it won’t win the next one by trying to “out-spend” Corbyn either.

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If you buy into the myth that Osborne cultivated, of course this is true. But if you look at what Cameron and Osborne actually did, the reality is very different. Cameron co-opted the central plank of Ukip’s policy programme – an In-Out referendum – without which Ukip may have done more direct electoral damage to Tory prospects. Osborne ended up enacting a programme of cuts far closer to what Labour proposed than the one he started with; and one that protected the Conservative electoral coalition from much of the cuts. Given what happened to Theresa May when she tried to “rebalance” the burden of cuts to fall on the old as well as the young, again, it is hard to see how Cameron would have won in 2015 had Osborne really stuck to his guns.

But Osborne, and many Conservative MPs, have forgotten the substance of what they actually do and are instead retreating into myth. The major beneficiary of that is Jeremy Corbyn.