On the Gov.uk website, they list George Osborne’s latest speech as the “New Year economy speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer”. Really, they should have called it the “New Year politics speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer”. Under cover of explaining “the five components of the government’s long-term economic plan”, the Chancellor actually distilled various slogans and dividing lines into one fiery brew. Here are the ones that stood out:
It’s not over yet. What I’ve previously called Osborne’s “two-tier message about the economy” featured heavily here. On Tier 1 is the straightforward argument that the Tories have the right economic plan and it’s already delivered us from recession. On Tier 2 is the caveat that it could all still go wrong. The Chancellor was careful to stress that, despite the progress that has been made, “we’re [still] borrowing around £100 billion a year – and paying half that money a year in interest just to service our debts.” And he added that the wider economy is still subject to various risks, from further weakness in the Eurozone to “slowing growth in the emerging economies further afield”. Of course, this is all about restraining people’s optimism so that they don’t vote for Labour and for fiscal incontinence. “[The job] isn’t even half done,” claimed Osborne. The clear implication is that Miliband and Balls can’t be trusted to finish it.
Oh yes, we’d cut benefits… And just in case you didn’t catch the part about the job not being complete, Osborne also talked about the extra cuts that will be necessary in the two years after the next election – cuts to the amount of £25 billion. That figure isn’t surprising in itself, but the Chancellor’s emphasis on it is still noteworthy, especially as he calculates that £12 billion of it will have to come from the welfare budget. This is mainly a challenge to Labour, daring them to speak out against welfare cuts that, Osborne knows, tend to be broadly popular with the public. But it’s also a challenge to the Lib Dems: speaking on the Today Programme earlier, Osborne proposed such Coalition-unfriendly policies as cutting housing benefit for under-25s. In fact, I reckon that the Tories and Lib Dems are most likely to part ways, when they choose to part ways, over the scale and nature of any cuts after 2015. It’s already something that is causing certain Lib Dem backbenchers some agitation.
…but not natural Tory voters’ benefits. After Cameron’s muddled message on pensioner benefits, a greater degree of clarity from Osborne. Again on the Today Programme, the Chancellor suggested that the Tories aren’t inclined to means-test universal benefits such as Winter Fuel Allowance, and claimed that doing so would only save “tens of millions of pounds”. This certainly chimes with what senior Government advisers have told me in the past, although I still don’t like it. Fact is, cuts to universal benefits could save more than the Chancellor suggests. And it would also be more consistent with the Tories’ other benefit cuts: why argue that it’s “difficult to justify” paying child benefit to the wealthiest families when you’re also giving perks to the wealthiest pensioners?
Fixing the economy is dealing with the cost of living. In a speech last September – which has some resemblance to today’s – Osborne trialled his response to Labour’s attack over the cost of living. People will have more money in their back pockets, he said, as the country returns to growth. Well, that argument was reheated earlier; another sign that the Chancellor realises how the perception of growth, and not just growth by itself, could determine the next election. Here, of course, he cited the Government’s efforts to ease the strain people’s budgets, but, crucially, he also pointed out the limitations of Government action: “there’s no point pretending that there’s some magic wand a Chancellor can wave to make the whole country feel richer than it actually is, or that I can control the global oil price from an office in Whitehall.” As I said before the Autumn Statement, this is a sensible – and honest – approach to take.
You, the people. Once again, Osborne delivered his speech at a location rich with televisual potential: a manufacturing company outside of Birmingham. This cannot be entirely unrelated to his employment of former BBC producer Thea Rogers. And, once again, he made sure to personalise his speech, referring to the people in the audience and including them in the “team effort” that has seen us return to growth. This may seem like a minor rhetorical detail, but, as I’ve said before, it’s important that Osborne never forgets the public. One man does not a growing economy make – especially when that one man is a politician.