George Osborne surprised me in one way today. He tried, and more or less succeeded, to resist the urge to bribe.
Sure, he had to offer the silly marriage tax thingummy and the free school meals whatchamacallit his bosses had dangled before their respective party conferences. He also shifted the cost of green obligations from one pot to another pot, and hey presto was able to announce a cut on energy price rises and a cut on Fuel duty. Mostly though, he din’t offer much in the way of voter treats, even though he was able to report falling Budget deficits.
This is, I suspect, mostly because Osborne wants to wait before he does some serious bribing. He wants time to do some gloating first.
Now, gloating Tory Chancellors don’t play well with voters, so this was all dressed up as a lengthy discussion of the long term challenges that remain to be addressed in Britain’s economy. It wasn’t though. It was the Parliamentary equivalent of skipping from foot to foot, pointing at Ed Balls and singing “I was right and you were wrong, so I can sing the I was right song‘. (This is how domestic disputes are settled in our house. It is rather more dignified than the House of Commons.)
Is Osborne right to believe he’s been proved right? Not really.
As dozens of centre left commentators will point out, Osborne’s deficit reduction targets are still below where he wanted to be in 2010, his growth forecasts come after three years of poor performance, and there remain significant problems for earnings.
However, this is not the record Osborne is competing against. He is judging himself against the more simple standard of ‘is the economy growing again?‘.
In this, he has been aided by a Labour party that has sometimes found it easy to oppose by implying not only that the Tory cuts programme would retard the progress of social market capitalism (which it has), but would entirely prevent growth because of austerity and the broken flatlining neo-liberal model (which is both confusing and unlikely).
Against this test, Osborne was able to say that the economy is growing faster than any of our rivals, just about stopping himself from leaning over the Dispatch box and adding ‘So Nyer, Nyer, Nyer to you, Ed Balls‘.
Labour’s response to this is to argue that there are the wrong kind of green shoots on the economic line. There may be a recovery, but it is weak, created by the wrong things, and isn’t helping the many. In the attacks on the cost of living, Labour highlights that economic growth may be back, but it’s not helping the many.
Osborne could have attacked this head on by offering more help for the struggling, aspirational voter. Aside from a fuel duty freeze, he didn’t do so. He didn’t announce an increase in the minimum wage, or a tax cut for low-middle income voters. He made pleasant noises about houses, but they were just placeholder guff.
He chose instead to try and make the whole debate about prices and bills and costs look small. “Here” he said “We’ve bloody well stuck to the plan1 and it’s finally working, and we’re not going to throw all that away by giving you all a load of nice stuff. Now, eat your greens“.
This message worked a lot better this year than it ever has before because the economy is growing. It also works because Osborne for once didn’t give much nice stuff to the wealthy while picking the pockets of the poor. Instead, he talked about Tax avoidance, and Foreign homebuyers, and how much the rich paid in tax.
So when Ed Balls stood up and argued that the Autumn Statement was a failure because it ignored the cost of living, he appeared to be putting immediate relief ahead of national recovery. The political argument seemed to be “The economy is growing but we need to gradually reduce deficits, we more employment and business creation to help family incomes, while being responsible with the national finances’ versus ‘the rent is too damn high‘. In the House of Commons, only one side is going to win that argument. I’ve said before that I’m a cost of living sceptic. I think Ed Balls felt the limitations of the ‘Cost of Living’ argument incredibly sharply in the House of Commons.
In other houses though, I’m much less sure Osborne won. He avoided his previous error of giving to the rich while taking from the poor. He managed to craft a reasonable argument about a long term national recovery. But he did little to address the Tories core weaknesses. He didn’t offer much to those who are struggling, even if that offer was made conditional on future growth. He didn’t offer much to those who feel neglected by his government. He is relying on the economy to do that for him.
On the floor of the House of Commons, George Osborne today succeeded in drawing attention away from the price of gas to the value of recovery. However, unless the Conservatives do much, much more to end the sense that they are perfectly happy for the recovery to benefit only a few, the real value of recovery will feel rather small for many millions of people.
The Tories have still not addressed their real problem. They can claim national growth, but offer little family help.
They will surely need both. So I expect the bribes are yet to come.
- Of course, he hasn’t, but why let facts trouble political strategy? [↩]