New Times,
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7 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

The hard part of George Osborne’s job is keeping a straight face

As the "year of hard truths" gets under way, remember that politicians mean something entirely different when they speak of "hard choices".

By Jonn Elledge

It can’t be easy being George Osborne. Nearly four years he’s been Chancellor, plugging away, cutting everything in sight – yet here he is, an election looming, and everything’s still so hard.

In the Autumn Statement he talked of “hard choices”, before this week declaring 2014 to be the “year of hard truths”. In the past he’s also offered “tough decisions”, “difficult decisions”, “tough choices” . . . All in all it’s clear he wants us to know that, however much he may seem to relish the unpleasant job of slashing the state, he’s actually finding it all incredibly difficult.

So what are the hard decisions he’s making to keep Britain on the path to growth? He’s trying to cut the deficit. He’s hacking away at the welfare budget (not pensions, mind). He’s “reducing taxes for hardworking people” (bad luck, lazy ones) and “creating more jobs by backing business” (more tax cuts, one assumes).

By a staggering coincidence, these are exactly the sorts of things that he got into politics to do. More to the point, they load all the pain onto the young and poor, while sparing the rich, the old, and anyone else disproportionately likely to vote Tory. These choices are about as hard as jelly. The only hard bit is keeping a straight face as he tells us how hard he’s finding it all.

Whenever politicians start talking about how tough they’re being, in fact, it’s like a flashing neon arrow pointing down the path of least resistance. If a policy actually requires guts, the last thing you want to do is draw attention to the fact, as that’ll just tip your voters off that someone’s about to get stiffed. Better, then, to reserve the label for making yourself feel big while doing exactly what you wanted to do anyway.

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It’d be nice to imagine that this is a phenomenon that started with Osborne. But as with so many of his policies (an unbalanced economy, a reliance on banking, a strange desire to make housing as expensive as possible), it’s a trick he picked up from those he claims to despise. As far back as 1997, Gordon Brown was promising not to postpone the “hard choices” required for Britain to enter the Euro, before, in the next breath, saying that it was a waste of time because it almost certainly wasn’t going to anyway. Six years later Brown took the “tough decision” to spend another £1 billion on his beloved child tax credit.

The summer of 2009 found Brown’s protégé Ed Balls, then schools secretary, arguing that, with the help of “tough choices, we can see real rises in the schools budget and the NHS budget in future years”. In other words, if the Treasury would only be tough enough to cut everyone else’s budgets, then Balls’ would be tough enough to duck his share of the pain – impressing, as a nifty side effect, some of the unions who’d have a vote in the next Labour leadership contest. Such noble self-sacrifice can bring a tear to your eye.

Which brings us back to Osborne. The strategy he’s laid out undoubtedly is going to be tough – for the young, the unemployed, those who rely on public services, even Ian Duncan Smith. But they’ll be remarkably easy to bear for anyone who could help deliver Osborne’s real goal of a Tory election victory.

A genuinely tough decision would involve saying that housing costs are damagingly high, and that house prices need to come down; that pensioners will take their share the pain; that cutting the deficit will require contributions from rich, as well as poor. Osborne, strangely, declined to do any of that. He hasn’t said a single thing that might alienate a potential Tory voter.

Early reports suggest that the pre-released draft of Osborne’s speech had described 2014 as “the year of hard choices” – that the “year of hard truths” was a last minute substitute. Perhaps someone had pointed out that his strategy didn’t merit the earlier label. It doesn’t cost the Chancellor, it doesn’t cost his friends, and it doesn’t cost his voters. His choices are not hard. It’s not even clear they’re choices.

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