By Paul Goodman
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Under the stark headline "George Osborne’s only plan is to pray for recovery", The Spectator has published a preview of Fraser Nelson's cover piece for this week's edition. He writes:
"The plan he set out three years ago had the Olympics marked down as a
turning point — assuming that debt would by then be under control and
he’d be mulling some celebratory tax cuts. Instead, Britain seems mired
in what is, officially, the worst recovery in history. Progress on the
deficit, Osborne’s defining mission, has halted. The AAA credit rating
he once prided himself on has gone and youth unemployment is reaching
crisis levels. If the Chancellor had a secret plan for growth, now would
be a good time to produce it."
Fraser is perhaps the leading journalistic critic of the Government's record on debt and, from the right, of the Chancellor's strategy as a whole – together with Allister Heath, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph this morning:
Osborne needs to stand up on Budget day and give a
completely different speech to anything we've heard so far, a passionate
defence of capitalism and enterprise. He needs to unveil a real supply-side,
pro-growth budget….Most importantly of all, he needs to rediscover hope. He
must sell himself as a liberator, not as a number-cruncher, as a Chancellor
who wants to help people fulfil their aspirations and dreams, not as a
technocrat intent on dashing them. This Budget is his last chance.
Most senior politicians like to float above the criticisms of journalists, or at least be seen to. (Though please note Jeremy Hunt's response this afternoon to my article this morning on the Government, Nicholson, health and Labour.)
More often than not, this is the best course to take. But Team Osborne will have read Allister's article and Fraser's Spectator cover piece with a grim sense of foreboding – correctly setting them in a political as well as an economic context.
The budget marks a crucial date on the political calendar in the run-up to May's local elections. The Chancellor is an easier political target than David Cameron. In economic terms, he has little room for manovere within the framework he has set for himself.
In political terms, his poll ratings are less robust than the Prime Minister's, which themselves have declined. He is thus a perfect target for backbench critics. He's unpopular. He's close to the Prime Minister. And the latter won't move him – which makes him a perfect surrogate target.
Fraser and Allister's early shots are among the early signs of the barrage that will greet the Chancellor before, during and after budget day. But Osborne will less worried about the barrage from media or Ed Miliband or Ed Balls than friendly fire on his own side.
Watch during the budget debate for critical speeches from the Tory backbenches, after it for hostile quotes in the papers – especially if, unusually, they're on the record – and for the weekend papers.
I've thought since Nick Clegg withdrew his support from the boundary review that Cameron's leadership is at risk, although on balance I think a no confidence vote is unlikely. The reception Osborne's budget gets will be an earlier indicator. The pressure's on him.