I sat down recently with three senior Tory MPs, all of whom were pleasant about ConservativeHome. However, they had a complaint – namely, that the site in general and its editor in particular are far too accommodating to George Osborne. They then proceeded to pour a bucket of metaphorical horse manure over the Chancellor’s absent head. No beliefs. Mesmirised by Tony Blair and New Labour. Bungled in opposition by pledging to stick to Labour’s spending limits. Messed up by adopting “green crap”. Erred by clambering on to Deripaska’s yacht. Meddles in whipping. Shares co-responsibility for the abortion of the last Tory election campaign. Backed in the Commons by a gang of over-promoted lightweights. Junked Conservative manifesto commitments on inheritance tax and stamp duty as soon as he could in the Coalition negotiations that followed. Should have cut deeper and faster. Threw away the Tory poll lead through the flaw-strewn 2012 budget…
Not much of Osborne was visible by the time they had finished. All I could do as he disappeared from view was reflect on how divisive a figure he is – not so much among voters (to whom he is still largely unknown after almost five years at the Treasury) as within the Party that he aspires, one day, to lead. Some believe that he and his politics stink; others, that he smells of roses. He has a steadfast band of supporters as well as a committed body of opponents in Fleet Street as well as Westminster.
Those opponents and my companions had a point – several, in fact. The Chancellor shed tears at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. But not even his worst enemy would label him an ideologue. His interest at University was in journalism rather than politics, and he seems to have ended up in the Conservative Research Department almost by accident. He shares responsibility for some flaky decisions in opposition on nuclear power, airports, and green taxes. The Deripaska imbroglio spotlit an unappealing fascination with wealth and power. He has not succeeded in the headline mission he set himself as Chancellor: to eliminate the deficit. The 2012 budget was indeed a fiasco – though the part of it that set the whole production “unravelling”, as politicians like to say, was not the cut in the 50p rate but the “granny tax”, swiftly followed by the “pasty tax”, and all those other taxes to which Osborne resorted to raise some revenue.
But think again about his record as Chancellor. Sure, the Government won’t stop borrowing, on current forecasts, until 2017-18 – at least three years over schedule. But the triple dip recession, catastrophic breakdown of public services, and soaring unemployment that his opponents forecast simply haven’t happened.
Osborne may have prolonged the pain of deficit reduction by not cutting the growth in spending further and faster. But his mañana approach has turned out to be consistent with roaring growth and buoyant employment. Admittedly, that growth looks suspiciously like a old-fashioned British housing-led boom, rather than the German-style investment, productivity and export-led recovery to which the Tory manifesto aspired. None the less, it is Balls-type propaganda to claim that nothing has changed. On education and skills, there is the Gove schools revolution and the Hayes/Hancock drive for more apprenticeships. On deregulation, Michael Fallon is striving to turn round the tanker, as he puts it – with some success. On infrastructure, Osborne has made a start on nuclear, is going for his Garden City in Ebbsfleet, and has taken up the cudgels for HS2. (You don’t have to support the project to recognise that at least he has taken a decision.)
Indeed, when it comes to curbing green levies, building houses, and cutting business taxes he has usually been on the side of the angels. There is even a case for arguing that Osborne is turning out to the ConservativeHome Chancellor, acting for the cause of Homes Jobs and Savings so close to the heart of this site. The budget’s investment allowances; his Ebbsfleet, Barking and Brent Cross housing announcements, and sweeping, unexpected reform of savings support the claim.
But to debate the matter back and forth would be to miss the point about Osborne. It is wrong to claim that he has no beliefs or, more precisely, instincts. He does: in foreign affairs, they are interventionist; in domestic ones, liberal. That sounds a lot like the politics of Blair – the man who the Chancellor sometimes refers to as “the Master”. But Osborne would never have been comfortable in the Labour Party: he is a social liberal, not a social democrat – supportive of same sex marriage (and the confrontational way it was forced on the Conservative Party), suspicious of tax support for married couples, convinced that modern women either work in the labour market or want to. None the less, views are less important to the Chancellor than purpose – which to him, for any politician, should be winning. For the best part of the last 50 years, the Tories have been a party of ideas, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But Osborne isn’t driven by ideas. He is driven by winning.
Hence his debt trap and welfare traps – the latter of which was deployed yesterday – his challenges, soundbites (the latest ones are “a resilient economy” and “economic security”) and exploitation of the budget baseline to throw Labour on the defensive. He is never happier than when playing the peculiar game of political warfare – half suduko, half karate. It is what the youngest Chancellor since Randolph Churchill has been doing ever since he was even younger.
Sometimes he succeeds, as in his 2007 Conservative Conference speech, with the promised tax cuts that frightened Gordon Brown off a snap election. And sometimes he fails: look no further than that “omnishambles” budget. (Both his supporters and opponents over-egg their respective puddings.) But to complain about his lack of preoccupation with ideas, or the obscurity of what he really wants for Britain’s tax system, is beside the point. It is a bit as though Tory MPs in the 1860s had complained that Disraeli wasn’t Gladstone. Political parties need conventional politicians as well as conviction ones – and Osborne is nothing if not conventional in his pursuit of power and office. What marks him out is the concentration which he brings to winning, so that power and office can be gained and held. Everything about yesterday’s budget was about winning: the income tax threshold rise, the fuel duty freeze (again), the beer duty cut (again), the bingo manoevre – the blue collar focus.
That includes his radical plans for savings. Older voters will be able to take out more money from pensions without being taxed at 50 per cent. They will spend some of it. The Treasury will tax the spending. Everyone wins, at least in the short term – and more of this group (which tends to vote) may even support the Conservatives. Will it boost savings in the long run, or increase reliance on the state? Who knows? Not Osborne, who is always looking for policies he can “weaponise” in order to win. This is a weaponised policy from a weaponised politician – the Weaponised Chancellor.