This was George Osborne’s most impressive Budget speech. He sounded less like a pre-revolutionary French aristocrat than he has at times in the past. The improvement in the economic outlook lent him an authority which has often eluded him.
And he avoided triumphalism. There was instead an almost Cromwellian sobriety about this speech. He pointed out that the deficit in the public finances is “still one of the highest in Europe”. We do not make enough, save enough, invest enough. But as makers, doers, savers and pensioners we can work out our own salvation, with the Government constructing a framework which makes it more and more feasible for us to do so.
Oltep had already been singled out for praise by at least three Tory backbenchers (Cheryl Gillan, Andrew Stephenson and Christopher Pincher) during Prime Minister’s Questions. Oltep is not, incidentally, an ingenious Hungarian who after winning a scholarship to Eton, and becoming one of the most notoriously vandalistic members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, is now supplying economic advice to the Chancellor.
Oltep is less human than that. Its letters stand for “Our Long-Term Economic Plan”, a subject on which Osborne had much to say. There were moments when he almost managed to become boring on the subject. Happy the land where economics, the dismal science, becomes boring. We are actually quite some way off attaining that condition, but at least the Chancellor is going in the right direction, towards a calmer and less interesting world where people and companies can take rational economic decisions without worrying that the Government is going to wreck everything.
Osborne enlivened his speech with a couple of good cracks at the Opposition. After reminding us of some of the things which went seriously wrong under Labour, he quoted the comically inadequate admission by Ed Balls that “some mistakes were made”. And while referring to the 800th anniversary next year of Magna Carta, he said how remote that event now seemed, involving as it did “a weak leader who’d risen to the top after betraying his brother”.
Ed Miliband had the grace to laugh at that. But in replying to Osborne, the Labour leader sounded like a frantic adolescent. He wagged and jabbed his finger, as if such gestures would lend force to his assertion that we are “worse off, much worse off, worse off under the Tories”. And because he had no economic analysis to offer, he resorted to class war.
The Tories should feel encouraged by this outmoded response. To go on and on about Eton is a confession of weakness, not strength. “What is the latest rebranding from the Bullingdon Club?” Miliband demanded. “It is beyond parody…They call themselves the Workers’ Party.”
The Conservative Party has not actually renamed itself the Workers’ Party. As usual, Miliband had allowed his hopes to outrun the facts. But this did sound like a Workers’ Budget: a sober, coherent, unglamorous set of measures to help anyone who is prepared to work hard. Labour shows no sign of being able to reply to that programme.