Thursday, 9 July 2015

Osborne apes Brown at his barnstorming best

For the best part of ten years, while he was at the Treasury, Gordon Brown dominated the House of Commons and every year he blunderbussed his Budget at an expectant nation.

Growth figures were bombastically rattled through, his hubristic ‘end of boom and bust’ slogan was wheeled out to the delight of his Labour backbenchers, rabbits were theatrically pulled from top hats, elephant traps were carefully laid and the Leader of the Opposition was invariably left on a tricky wicket, clutching a bat broken by the opposing team’s vice-captain.

And the youthful George Osborne clearly watched these performances with a mixture of horror and awe; he may not have agreed with Brown’s policies, but he clearly enjoyed the performance as the former member for Kirkcaldy provides Osborne with his template.

Osborne has been a lucky chancellor. During the coalition government, the economy came mightily close to a double and triple dip recession and growth was painfully stagnant. He missed his own deficit targets time and time again and few but the wealthiest could actually feel the benefits of whatever growth there was.

But, he held his nerve and has been rewarded. The economy is growing at a healthy rate, jobs are being created – albeit too many at too low a wage – and yesterday (July 8) he was able to deliver the first Conservative-only budget since Kenneth Clarke rose up on his hind quarters in November 1996.

Osborne has moved on since his disastrous pasty tax Budget and this was his cleverest yet. While there were the predictable crowd pleasers like the inheritance tax changes, reduction of the benefits cap, defence spending pledges and promising a surplus by 2019/2020, he made quite a bold pitch for the political centre ground.

Osborne’s Living Wage, while not actually at the level of the living wage, was a spectacular rabbit to pluck from the hat; such a whopper it was almost a hare. For those on the minimum wage, aged 25 or over, it means their pay will jump by 70p an hour – to a not insignificant £7.20 – from April and would reach £9-an-hour by 2020. Before the General Election, Labour only pledged that the minimum wage would rise to £8 over the course of this parliament; no wonder George Osborne was being cheered to the rafters by his backbenchers.

Increasing the tax free personal allowance, promising a rise in NHS spending and abolishing non-dom status for people born in Britain to parents domiciled here, could also have come from any party.

Such was the nature of his bravura performance, one would be forgiven for thinking all was fine and dandy with the economy. The clouds over China and the chaos engulfing Greece seemed a long way away and the still fragile nature of the economy could almost be forgotten. Just weeks ago, one Tory MP told me he feared the economy had already reached the crest of the wave now and worried about the next few years, especially considering the country’s enormous debt. But today, these concerns were put to one side.

Yes, while giving with one hand, Osborne was taking with another, like every chancellor before him. Those relying on tax credits will feel the pinch particularly, especially those under 25 years-old; now is not a good time to be young. But again, Labour will struggle to fight against tax credit changes and will not reverse them if and when they get the opportunity.

Unlike Gordon Brown, Osborne is not a Son of the Manse; he isn’t naturally infused with the oratorical skills and moral authority of a church minister. But, with his stature enhanced by the illustrious nature of his office, few are able to command the House of Commons as he does.

Harriet Harman responded for Labour; famously acknowledged as the hardest job of the year for the Leader of the Opposition. She did her best, but one thing she did get absolutely spot on was her acknowledgement that this Budget was as much about Osborne’s ambition to succeed David Cameron as it was the economy. And it is impossible to conceive Boris Johnson delivering as wily and assured package as George Osborne did today. Once again, the likely successor to our current prime minister is his next door neighbour.

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