That picture of David Cameron and George Osborne, together, on the front of tomorrow’s newspapers? Yeah, thanks to poor, old David Moyes, it ain’t going to happen. But it’s still worth considering the effect of the Tory leadership duo’s first joint appearance for four years, even if it is relegated to a margin on page 27. For effect is what they were going for.
First of all, there’s the very fact of them sharing a platform. There are probably numerous humdrum reasons for this, but I wonder if it’s also a reaction to a political truth: that Cameron and Osborne have been growing apart. I don’t mean this in a Blair and Brown, blood-on-the-divorce-papers sense, but in the sense that the Chancellor – emboldened by the recovery – has become more his own politician, and less obviously part of the Cameron package. Hence why my old boss Fraser Nelson could say, in an interview with the Guardian on Saturday, that ‘Cameron is in many important regards becoming the public face of Osborne’s government’. This may not necessarily be a bad arrangement, but the impression of it is one that Downing Street won’t want to encourage. Electoral success, much like success at Manchester United, isn’t helped by the question of “Who’s the boss?”
Then there’s what Cameron and Osborne are appearing in the East Midlands to talk about: infrastructure. And it’s not just them: Patrick McLoughlin and Eric Pickles are in other parts of the country today, majoring on major projects. The £36 billion of infrastructure spending that they’re highlighting may not be new, but this heavy an emphasis on it is. The Tories are clearly keen to claim this ground for themselves – without the Liberal Democrats.
It’s fair to say that today’s appearances are the in-front-of-camera culmination of a protracted, behind-the-scenes process. As I’ve explained before, this Government came to regret matching Alistair Darling’s planned capital expenditure cuts in its early years – and so they stopped. George Osborne asked ministers to find money in their budgets that could be used for building projects instead. Better, the thinking went, that it’s spent on creating work in Whitby than on installing photocopiers along Whitehall.
This is an admirable position, but it’s worth noting that the politics aren’t as clean as Cameron and Osborne might wish. Just consider, to take a not entirely random example, HS2:
- It’s a long way off… As the official HS2 website puts it, “the first high speed trains should be speeding along the tracks between Birmingham and London by 2026.” Which is to say, this infrastructure project will conclude well after this Government does – even before we consider the possibility of political or practical delay.
- …if it ever arrives, that is. The last we heard, the Major Projects Authority was pretty pessimistic about the delivery of HS2, rating it as “red-amber” on its five-point scale. The Department for Transport responded by saying that it had already dealt with many of the MPA’s concerns, but the point remains: starting is certainly not the same as finishing.
- It’s divisive. We know about the backbenchers and voters who are united against HS2, but there could be another dimension to this opposition as well. If costs swell higher, and if the money comes even indirectly out of departmental budgets, then the Chancellor could have plenty of angry ministers at his office door.
- It’s a massive opportunity cost. And why will those ministers be angry? Partially because the money could have been put towards different priorities – their priorities. In fact, the entire capital spending budget is a difficult game of priority management. The £42.6 billion that’s being spent on HS2 would buy quite a lot of new tarmac for the country’s roads.
And – here’s the thing – the same, or similar, goes for plenty of other infrastructure projects. Increased air capacity? Delayed and divisive. Nuclear power? Boosted by ingenuity on both the Chancellor’s and China’s part, but still not at the level the country requires. Potholes? Partially filled with £200 million of extra funding, which only leaves another £12 billion to go…
…and so on. I don’t mean to be a grouch: the Government is doing a lot of good work when it comes to infrastructure, which explains the party political push today. But, overall, they will be judged on a more mixed basis.