Many Chancellors of the Exchequer have tried to stop a market panic, but only one that I can think of has ever tried to start one. Last week, George Osborne pledged that he would respond to any post-Brexit market convulsion by doing the very opposite of what common sense would suggest. That’s to say, instead of cutting taxes and raising spending, he would raise taxes and cut spending. Never mind that the Commons wouldn’t let him do it. And never mind that, in the event of a Leave vote, he won’t be in place for long. The gimmick was designed to spook the markets and panic the voters.
In effect, the Chancellor was threatening to break into your bank account and swipe much of your monthly pay cheque – and raid your kids’ piggy bank before departing. Today, he is at it again, threatening redundancies as early as Friday. Leave campaigners have raised the temperature during this campaign: consider Nigel Farage’s inflammatory poster. But Farage is not even an MP, let alone a senior Minister. There is no equivalent on the Leave side to what Osborne did last week. It is as though Boris Johnson were Home Secretary and said that, if Britain didn’t jolly well vote Leave, he’d end all border controls at a stroke.
For many Conservative backbenchers, the Chancellor’s wheeze – do what I say, or I’ll shrink the economy – was the last straw on a groaning camel’s back. He has been near the core of the Remain campaign’s least appetising stunts: the pre-purdah £9 million pound taxpayer-funded pro-In propaganda, the roping in of Christine Lagarde, Amber Rudd’s disreputable swipe at Boris, the dodgy Treasury forecasts, – one of which provoked Chris Giles, the Economics Editor of the impeccably pro-Remain Financial Times, to suggest that “more likely, the numbers are just made up.” The interventions of the Governor of the Bank of England, his appointee, have been of borderline propriety at best.
So far, so predictable. Many Tory MPs think Osborne hasn’t been playing by the rules: so what else is new? But the events of the campaign should be seen in a deeper and wider context. For the Chancellor was in deep economic and political trouble before it even began.
The sum of Osborne is that he has been a good Chancellor who has run out of luck. This view will be shared neither by his band of devotees in the media who laud him as a strategic genius (no names, no pack-drill), nor by the cluster of critics who say that he is all politics and no trousers, and that he should have cut taxes and spending more. (They tend to have lots of crowd-pleasing plans for the former, and noticably fewer for the latter). The truth lies elsewhere. Osborne has failed in his plan to eliminate the structural deficit, but succeeded in firing a recovery when his critics said he wouldn’t. One of these, by the way, was the IMF – whose forecasts he now lauds over Brexit.
The cut in the top rate of tax, the Northern Powerhouse, corporation tax reductions, HS2, the new Living Wage, more childcare for working parents – many of the signature policies of the Cameron governments have been his. Most of these have been for the better: that drive to get corporation tax down, for example. Some of them have not been. For example, the Chancellor has no sympathy for mothers of working age who aren’t in the labour market. Until this Parliament, his strategic wheezes more or less evened out. The Omnishambles Budget could be weighed against October 2007, when his chutzpah in pledging tax cuts warded off Gordon Brown’s election plans.
But since last May, his touch seems to have deserted him. Perhaps he has failed to adjust to a Commons without a real working majority. Maybe his echo-chamber of supporters, with whom the Ministerial ranks are stuffed, hymns his talents so loud that he now hears little else. Perhaps time has simply caught up with him, as it catches up with us all. But whatever the explanation may be, his touch on the tiller has been increasingly wayward. Some of his plans have asked for trouble, such as a Sunday trading extension for which there was no majority. Others have been right in principle – the proposed tax credit scaleback, bringing more coherence to PIPs. (We supported him on both.)
Now stand back for a moment, and think about how this recent past affects the Government’s future in the event of the referendum’s most likely outcome, a Remain vote.
The truth is that matters have reached such a pass that a gulf of distrust now separates Osborne from a significant cross-section of Conservative backbenchers. He was right to want to scale back PIP spending, but handled Iain Duncan Smith extremely badly. The latter’s resignation wounded him. And Osborne has stumbled over the Brown-type dividing lines which he drew with such relish. He has breached his own welfare cap. He has missed his debt target. The jury is out on whether he will hit his deficit target, especially since we are due another recession – though one would think, listening to him, that if Britain votes to Remain, boom-and-bust will be abolished.
In the event of that Remain majority, it isn’t hard to guess the most likely course that David Cameron will take. One can almost hear the speech to the 1922 Committee. “Divisive referendum campaign team…mistakes made all round…time for coming together…Labour, our common enemy…plenty to be getting on with…Trident vote…childhood obesity strategy…Heathrow.” All this would signal more than the sum of its good parts. It would be a sign that the Prime Minister intends business as usual, with Osborne in place at the Treasury – and the top Tory team going on more or less as before.
This site has long argued that the Government and Party need a more collegiate style of leadership, recommending that Michael Gove be made Deputy Prime Minister. You may agree or disagree, but matters have reached such a pass that this political tug-of-war is almost beside the point – which is that if the Chancellor is still in place by the end of the summer, the Government is unlikely to get much of its legislation through when the Commons returns. Many of its legislative plans will meet the fate of the academisation-by-2020 plan. If Ministers found it hard to get their business before, they will find it harder still amidst the grudge-laden atmosphere that will follow a Remain win.
There is frenzy about the risks to the Tories of a Leave vote. Less thought has been given to the risks of a Remain one. The biggest is not that the Party would split, but that Britain would be left with a Zombie Government, unable to get its leglisation through Parliament at a time of domestic challenge and international crisis.
Moving the Chancellor from the Treasury to another senior post would not solve this problem, but it would ease it. Who should replace him? In our view, someone who takes a different view from ConservativeHome on this referendum. The only senior politician who has not been compromised by the corners cut by both sides; the only one not to have accused colleagues of lying (directly or indirectly), the only one to have struck a balance between leadership ambition and political principle – in short, Theresa May.