The Treasury Support Group is the band of backbench Conservative MPs who support George Osborne’s front bench team, particularly in the chamber. Last week, it held its first meeting of this Parliament, and was addressed by the Chancellor himself. Tory MPs who attended – and there was no shortage of new ones queuing up to make themselves useful – were struck by the directness with which he went to the point he wanted to make.
Osborne began by introducing Greg Hands, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury and formerly Deputy Chief Whip – “a former member of the Treasury Support Group,” the Chancellor reminded his listeners. He then went on to make a roll-call of former group members: Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd, Robert Halfon…all now entitled to attend Cabinet at the least. The message was unadorned: you stratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – and not just when it comes to promotion.
The Chancellor’s mastery of the art of finding a little bit of help for colleagues in need – more money for a hospital refurbishment here, help for a museum there, the speeding-up of by-pass construction elsewhere – is the stuff of legend among those members of the 2010 intake who have just won the marginal seats that they were defending. This is pork-barrel politics, U.S-style – as practised by Lyndon Johnson and the other American politicians whose biographies Osborne consumes.
It is also the window through which to look at his announcement of a new law to ban Government deficits – part of his Mansion House package yesterday evening. It would be all too easy to pick holes in the plan. After all, he didn’t meet the original Conservative aim of eliminating the deficit during the last Parliament, and it still isn’t clear when this happen (if it does). Shouldn’t the Chancellor practice what he preaches? And do we really need another policy enshrined in law? Climate change targets, aid targets, child poverty targets – aren’t there already more than enough measures enshrined in statute just to puff the profiles of those who present them?
The same consideration applies to his revival of the superbly-named Committee of the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt (which last met in 1860): Osborne ran up more debt during the last Parliament than all the last century’s Labour Governments combined. But such griping misses part of what the Chancellor is about. As I wrote shortly after the election, he is setting a Surplus Trap for Labour to add to new Benefits Trap…and the other traps he is preparing for the next Opposition leader.
We challenge Labour to match our Surplus Guarantee! We challenge the Welfare Party to sign up to our Benefits Cap! This is the Parliamentary mix of sudoku-and-karate that Osborne relishes, and which he originally learned from Gordon Brown. Under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives learned to fight the battle of ideas while also winning elections. After her decapitation, there were many ideas but no victories. The Chancellor is redressing the balance – and a good thing too.
Furthermore, some of those criticisms are excessive. Eliminating deficits is not altogether in Chancellors’ hands: recession abroad, a banking crisis, tax receipts that don’t come in – the list of ways in which they are at the mercy of events is long. During the last Parliament, Osborne made the cuts in the growth of spending that he promised to make. By seeking to outlaw deficits during normal economic times he is also moving to shift the terms of ideological trade.
Sure, nothing that the Chancellor does is ever free of Party politics. But his latest wheeze represents a push for a smaller state and sound money – those Thatcherite verities. They will help to shift the culture a bit towards the centre-right. “You don’t have ideas,” the king says to Pitt the Younger in The Madness of King George. “Ah well, you have one very big idea: balancing the books…and a very good idea it is to have, too.” It was Pitt, by the way, who first introduced that Committee on Public Debt.
The historian in Osborne will have enjoyed reviving it. In the ConservativeHome Manifesto, we called for “A Balanced Budget Plus rule – requiring budgets to be balanced over each economic cycle”. In effect, this is what the Chancellor is pursuing, as he eyes the coming EU renegotiation, the Prime Minister’s promised resignation, the leadership election that will follow…and the chance to lock Labour out of power until 2025 at least.