By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
George Osborne is no less a pupil of Gordon Brown than Ed Balls, at least when it comes to moving pieces on the political chessboard. To change the image, Brown was a believer in "dividing lines" – gambits designed to throw his opponents on the defensive. "Labour Investment versus Tory cuts". "Labour's 50p rate versus Tory posh boys." "Labour's NHS investment versus Tory privatisation plans." Osborne usually swerved to avoid the traps, and has been lambasted for it – especially for his early decision as Shadow Chancellor to stick to Labour's spending plans. But it's worth noting that after the single occasion when he walked knowingly into one, the party's poll ratings slumped, and the right didn't back him up. I refer, of course, to the cut in the 50p rate.
But his entry to the Treasury gave Osborne the opportunity to set dividing lines of his own, since it is usually the Government that dictates terms. His ability to set the spending baseline is a classic example of this, and there are more. He has been working away since 2010 at rolling back Brown's expansion of welfare dependency (though with limited success): scaling back the child tax credit, which Brown deliberately pushed up the income scale, has been a classic Osborne manoevre. Yesterday's welfare speech should be seen as part of this greater whole. We've yet to see any polling, but the speech was well-constructed, David Bennett's finances have been deconstructed, and while the Daily Mail's brutal take on Mick Philpott has horrified the Guardianistas, swing voters in those midlands and northern marginals may take a different view.
Osborne can be criticised for being a pupil of Brown in other ways. On one count, the deficit is as high as ever. The budget had some good measures, such as the NIC and corporation tax cuts, but its big idea – subsidising housing – was a cry of intellectual exhaustion. His plans were predicated on robust recovery by now, and it hasn't come. But his speech yesterday was a reminder that when it comes to attack dogs, the Chancellor's still a big beast. His aim was to throw Labour on the defensive, exacerbate the pressure on Ed Balls from Labour's backbenches, and draw a dividing line over a issue on which voters are not on Ed Miliband's side. David Cameron, Good Cop, stayed out of yesterday's fracas. Osborne, Bad Cop, waded into action. That Mockney accent apart, the role suits him.