This year’s third quarter growth figure will be published later this morning: forecasts have settled on 0.7 per cent, but we shall see. Whatever it is, it won’t satisfy George Osborne’s critics, who broadly divide into two broad groups – his critics on the left, who believe that he has reduced the rate of public spending too fast, and those on the the right, who think that he has cut it too slowly. Elements in both unite in denouncing the Chancellor as spending too much time in Downing Street rather than the Treasury and being preoccupied with politics rather than economics – a boy doing a man’s job.
The core of the case of his left-wing opponents is that Osborne’s approach unnecessarily prolonged stagnation, and that he would have done better to aim to cut the structural deficit in half, like Labour. They point to a recession which, it has been claimed, is longer than that of the 1930s. But this is to presume that a Labour minority Government or Lab/Lib Coalition would have delivered on its objective. That the deficit won’t be eliminated by the end of this Parliament – to date, it has fallen by a third – shows just how hard it is to reduce the growth of spending.
If a Conservative-led Government will fail to eliminate the deficit by 2015, what reason is there to believe that a Labour-led one would have been more successful in halving it? The Chancellor’s critics on the Left miss a point that even Vince Cable acknowledges – namely, that in 2010 Britain’s deficit was forecast to be the worst in the EU. It was therefore essential for the incoming Government to aim high (or rather low) as far as the deficit was concerned, in order to restore the confidence of business and create the conditions for growth.
The essence of the argument of Osborne’s right-wing critics is that debt continues to grow and that progress on the deficit is slow – indeed, that by aiming to eliminate it over five years rather than by 2015, the Chancellor has abdicated financial responsibility. I have some sympathy with this case, but it is worth bearing in mind both spending reality and political circumstance. On spending, Osborne’s axe has been sharper than Thatcher’s, as Peter Hoskin’s evidence suggested last year (see also what’s been happening to departmental expenditure limits).
To have forced it to bite deeper would have required a further scaleback. But while there is no shortage of voices on the right calling for big spending cuts, there has been a striking shortage of plans to effect them. ConservativeHome has tried to do its bit. We ran a series last year on how the task might be undertaken: hats off to Andrew Haldenby, Ruth Porter, Chris Nicholson, Matthew Sinclair, and Neil O’Brien. But neither Conservative MPs (with some honourable exceptions) nor centre-right publications have been queuing up to detail where the axe should fall.
Further reductions in the rate of spending growth will follow the next election sooner or later. So it’s worth remembering as we look ahead at the prospect just how hard it has been to achieve even this level of deficit reduction. Liberal Democrat party members, the “National Union of Ministers”, Conservative MPs with constituency interests to defend, angry voters and manipulative lobbies – at once time or another, all have been (or remain) obstacles to Osborne sticking to his plan and Britain living within its means.
Views of the Chancellor tend to be black-and-white. He has a band of devoted admirers, both in Parliament and in the press. The number of critics is larger, and it takes in some, even many, of his fellow Conservatives. The truth is more nuanced. The Chancellor has made some bad mistakes (such as parts of last year’s budget). And his good ideas haven’t always been followed through, at least yet (such as merging the tax and national insurance systems). The latest manifestation of Help to Buy is hard to reconcile with his opposition support for a German-type economy.
But he has consistently been on the right side of the big economic arguments in Government: over airports, over regional pay, over housing benefit, over infrastucture (whatever one thinks of HS2) – and, now, over green taxes. If he is to shoulder some of the blame for green excesses in opposition, he must also take the credit for grasping the need to cut the rise in spending, and saying so. His critics argue that he should have done so earlier. Perhaps: but even the modest cuts spelt out in the 2010 manifesto proved hard to sell in those midlands and northern marginals.
I’ve said it before and say it again: Osborne is the best political strategist the Party has – even if that view must be qualified by adding that he is just about the only one that the Party has. His good work at the Treasury isn’t always acknowledged. That may change as – or rather if – the economy continues to grow.