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17 November 2022

Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement was a George Osborne tribute

The problem for the Chancellor is that, unlike in 2010, the economic crisis happened on the Tories’ watch.

By Freddie Hayward

If you wrote about Boris Johnson’s performances in the House of Commons you had to talk about his style. The style was the politics. It distinguished him from Keir Starmer and was a fundamental part of the high-spending boosterism of his government. Johnson is on the back benches now, but as Jeremy Hunt arrived to deliver the Autumn Statement today you could tell that style is just as important for the new administration.

Hunt’s purpose as Chancellor is to restore the government’s economic credibility. Simply the manner in which he turned up today (17 November), with combed hair, carefully knotted tie, gripping an Office for Budget Responsibility forecast, sent a strong signal. His assured administrator’s voice could hardly be more different to the aloof baritone of his predecessor, the ideological academic Kwasi Kwarteng. The headmaster had returned to the classroom to restore the control lost by the substitute teacher.

Hunt’s key method to regain credibility was a return to the politics – and style – of the Coalition government. “Discipline” and “difficult decisions” were the watchwords of Hunt’s speech. “Instead of being ideological, I’m going to be practical,” he soothed his backbenchers. Hunt embodied “sensibilism”: ideological decisions masked by appeals to necessity.

The tactics were similar to those of the Coalition chancellor George Osborne, too. Steal Labour’s policy on insulating homes. Appoint a former Labour minister to advise on the NHS. Sweeten the spending cuts with a rise in the minimum wage. Carefully deploy real vs nominal measures for spending to suggest that benefits are being raised, despite the reality that the standard monthly payment is still around £50 lower in real terms than in 2010. Overall, try to bind the opposition into the economic narrative and force them to play by your rules. Make it seem as if this is the only option and any divergence is dangerous to the public finances.

That narrative is less effective when the economic crisis you’re trying to fix happened under your party’s watch. The OBR forecast a drop in living standards of 7.1 per cent over the next two years. For all the style, most people won’t have the money to care.

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[See also: Falling living standards will leave the Tories trapped with no good options]

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