By Andrew Gimson
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George Osborne threatened us with a return to intensive care. His manner as he delivered his statement was that of a senior doctor who cannot bear to have his clinical judgement questioned. People cannot help recalling that when Dr Osborne began operating on the British economy, he predicted a much more rapid recovery than has actually taken place.
But Dr Osborne pre-empted criticism by informing us in a harsh tone that but for him we would be dead, or at least at death's door: "If we abandon our deficit plan Britain would be back in intensive care." We are, he tells us, so weak that we have no choice but to go on submitting to the course of treatment he has prescribed. A few more cuts, inflicted by Dr Osborne with his usual finesse, and we shall feel fit as a fiddle.
The speech was rich in diversionary tactics, perhaps designed to distract us from the grimness of the treatment we must go on enduring. Even before he spoke, Dr Osborne diverted us with the horrifying claim that while working on his statement, he had subsisted on burgers and coke. To substantiate this outlandish story, he released a photograph of himself with these foods on his desk.
We regret to say that he does not look well on this diet. Like so many junk food addicts, Dr Osborne appears pale and unhappy. When one of his Tory predecessors as Chancellor, Winston Churchill, was attempting in the autumn of 1926 to settle the miners' strike, he set about it by inviting all concerned to oysters and champagne at Chartwell and the Savoy Grill. It is said that the more champagne Churchill consumed, the more favourable he became towards the miners. Churchill was notable for showing magnanimity in victory. Osborne sounds instead like an old-style mine owner.
In a further effort to distract us, Dr Osborne unveiled a new "benefit cap" which in his view "proves that Britain is serious about living within its means". We shall have to wait and see whether the benefit cap fits.
No sooner had Dr Osborne launched the benefit cap than he announced that people in hot countries will no longer get the winter fuel payment. Is this really a another sign that he is getting tough? Or does it show a preference for drawing attention to a measure which will save a small amount of money and affect only a few people, many of them living in the coastal districts of Spain?
Dr Osborne followed this with another announcement which was supposed to give the impression that he is getting tough: "If you're not prepared to learn English your benefits will be cut." But most of us can already speak English, or are under the impression that we can speak English, or would be prepared, in extremis, to take lessons to improve our English. Once again, Mr Osborne's toughness was reserved for a small group.
Perhaps the most shameless diversion of all was the announcement that the site of the Battle of Waterloo will be restored in time for the 200th anniversary in 2015. Mr Osborne enjoyed describing Waterloo as "a great victory of coalition forces over a discredited former regime that impoverished millions". But who is Wellington in this analogy? And do we really find ourselves watching a battle won on the playing fields of Eton?
Bouncing up and down on the other side of the Despatch Box could be seen the grinning figure of Ed Balls. One had the impression he rather enjoyed being compared to Napoleon, or if not to Napoleon (for that role belongs to Gordon Brown, now brooding in exile in North Queensferry) then at least to Marshal Ney.
Mr Balls shouted very loudly and called the Tories names: Mr Osborne was "Bumble" while some other minister was "Zippy". The Prime Minister and the Chancellor consider themselves very lucky to be fighting Mr Balls: they regard him as useless. But a successful strategy cannot be built on the deficiencies of one's opponents.