By Paul Goodman
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The Daily Mail and The Times lead with George Osborne's declaration today that the Government will make more than £800million available to help local authorities avoid council tax rises. The Mail says:
The freeze will save the average family £72 next year, on top of another £72 saved from a similar move this year, and means council tax will not rise before April 2013 at the earliest. Mr Osborne will say: ‘I want to help families and pensioners with the cost of living.’ The spending commitment, to be funded from ‘underspends’ in Whitehall, comes as a surprise after repeated Government claims that there is no room in the public finances for tax cuts.
While the Times reports on the source of the funding:
Mr Osborne’s aides insist that the underspending is the result of the coalition’s drive on waste and a shift in Whitehall culture. Instead of rushing out spending towards the end of a year to ensure a departmental budget was fully spent, the money was now being used on priorities. One said: “Instead of sitting on an underspend we are giving it back. The days of the year-on-year spend are gone.”
The Chancellor's speech today is in one sense the most important of the week, since the main question pressing the Government is: what's your growth strategy? He likes to trail an announcement in the morning papers and save a surprise for speech itself, in order to dominate the political news for the rest of the day, so don't be astonished if there is one.
That said, the cupboard is bare – for all the Treasury's ingenious juggling with "underspend" – and The Times claims that he is saving his main growth measures up for November autumn statement. Certainly, one of Team Cameron's conference aims is to persuade voters that the main Coalition partners "feels their pain", a phrase that is being briefed out.
In the week of the year when the Party is most likely to achieve mass media cut-through, Osborne will be thinking as much of the voters as the markets – particularly those who are less bothered about what to them is an abstract "growth agenda" than the squeeze on their incomes, as shopping and energy bills rise.
The Chancellor is not a natural conference orator. But he takes a lot of time and trouble with his speeches: after all, he may have a leadership election to fight in the future. One of them, remember, helped to frighten Gordon Brown off calling a 2007 election, when Osborne committed a Conservative Government to inheritance tax and stamp duty cuts.
So don't expect him to give all his growth answers today. Watch for announcements not trailed in today's papers. (By getting on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, too, he has succeeded in his aim this morning.) And keep an eye on the degree to which his speech follows Brown's example as Chancellor by setting its deliverer up as scarcely less important than the Prime Minister.
One of Brown's means of establishing ownership of Blair's Governments when he was Chancellor was by naming Cabinet Members and announcing their plans at conference. This reminded his audience of the power of the Treasury and the status of the Chancellor (at the same time as infuriating his colleagues by pilfering their announcements). Osborne's not above doing the same.