The Government document setting out its case for remaining in the EU was a waste of £9 million of taxpayers’ money and a breach of its undertaking not to use mailshots to load the referendum dice – in spirit, anyway. But much of the content of it was sober enough. The same cannot be said of yesterday’s Treasury document fronted by George Osborne. (And produced, as Full Fact notes, “by civil servants whose salaries you pay.”)
As Fraser Nelson has written, it calculated that incomes will rise if we leave the EU, not fall, though one would not have known this from the Chancellor’s presentation. But as Allister Heath and Andrew Lilico have said, there is no basis for believing that they would increase in the relatively slow way that the publication predicts. This is because it simply assumes that the economics of Brexit would be all downside and no upside. Alex Deane produced a splendid diatribe against this sleight-of-hand on this site yesterday.
If you doubt these voices from the Right – though remember that Fraser is a Remainer – then listen to Open Europe. Raoul Ruparel, its co-director, said that the report is “one-sided”. “It is a cost-benefit analysis of EU membership which looks at the benefits of EU membership and talks about the costs of leaving, but none of the benefits of leaving,” he said. “It is a strange combination.” Osborne replaced Treasury forecasts with OBR ones precisely because the former became discredited. If he himself didn’t take them seriously before, why does he do so now?
But what was striking about the Chancellor’s presentation was not its mendacity but its contemptuousness. Branding Leave campaigners “economically illiterate” was a V-sign flicked at the two in five Conservative MPs who back Brexit – the very people whose support he will need if he contests a Tory leadership contest. Perhaps he is prepared to sacrifice his ambitions for Remain. Or maybe he was simply unable yesterday to conceal his detestation of the Party’s Right – a wing that though far from identical with Conservative Leave supporters certainly overlaps with them.
There is doubtless a more sober explanation. Osborne’s leadership prospects have withered during the last six months. He has been forced to tear up his plans for tax credits, pensions and benefit reform. Last month, he plunged to the bottom of this site’s Cabinet League Table. Although he has many economic achievements under his belt – not least helping to produce a recovery which his critics said wouldn’t happen – he has missed his debt target, breached his welfare cap, and may well miss his surplus target target too.
The Chancellor is nothing if not a gambler – remember those inheritance tax and stamp duty pledges, thrown down on the table to ward off a 2007 election – and has doubtless calculated that only a thumping Remain victory can revive his leadership hopes. A Leave vote would doom them. A narrow Remain win would be scarcely better. Only the crushing of Leave can restore his authority and give him the time to rebuild his position. He can only – to use an unhappy phrase from his point of view – go for broke.
If Remain wins narrowly, don’t rule out Osborne quitting the front bench altogether, and preparing to leave the Commons altogether. He is still a young man and would be able to earn handsomely outside it, unencumbered by Parliament’s inconvenient reporting requirements. But it is hard to imagine this lover of the game simply chucking it in. He would be more likely to try to become in Government what Margaret Thatcher claimed to be after she was brought down: “a good back seat driver”.
That would mean ruling through a proxy, or striving to. Perhaps it would be a Remain supporter – such as Stephen Crabb, whose star is on the rise. More likely it would be the man who should now be Deputy Prime Minister, according to this site and its readers, and who though a fervent Leave campaigner has the respect of both sides.
That’s the old friend and ally who is busily laying into the Chancellor this morning, accusing him of treating voters “like children” (or, as Osborne himself used to say of Gordon Brown, “like fools”), and pointing out that the Treasury assumes immigration will rise by hundreds of thousands each year: Michael Gove.