Coffee House

Osborne’s weak response

25 March 2010

I was all set up to Fisk the post-Budget analysis which Darling normally gives to the Today programme after the Budget – but he wasn’t there. The Treasury refused to have him debate with Osborne which is what Today (unusually) seems to have assumed. Well, we’d best get used to hearing Osborne post-Budget day. At first, I thought it was a coup for the Tories – but as Evan Davis sharpened his claws, it soon appeared to have been a net negative. Osborne just didn’t sound confident. A series of exchanges left him looking unprepared.

His line – that he will eliminate ‘the bulk’ of the annual overspend over the lifetime of the parliament – was challenged: what does it mean? How does it differ from Darling’s pledge to halve the annual overspend over the same period? It doesn’t, really. I’m sure Osborne will reduce the overspend faster, but I’m also sure Labour would have to do this as well. The markets will impose fiscal discipline on whoever is the next Chancellor. But there is a difference in what tools they would use to do this, as Osborne said. He quoted an OECD study showing that fiscal consolidation is at its most effective when done by an 80/20 mix of cuts and taxes.  (Labour proposes 67/33). This was his first mistake.

Acronyms and statistics never work on a prime time radio programme – it bores most ordinary voters. Brown used them as part of his great confidence trick: the listener is supposed to think ‘I don’t understand that, probably my fault, but this chap seems to know what he’s talking about’. Before Davis came along, the interviewer was usually bamboozled too. So Brown would manage to waffle on while quoting weird statistics without challenge. But Clarke, Lamont, Lawson – none of these guys would empty a bucket of statistics in an interview. Clarke especially. The Tory response to Brown should be to speak in the vernacular not reply with more statistics. At 8.15am, this was not going to win around any swing voters.

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Evan Davis jumped in: so Labour would do 67 percent cuts, the Tories would do 80 percent cuts. ‘It’s a difference, but it’s not one to get that excited about.’ Osborne said that it is a ‘quite a substantial difference’, that ‘we are not reaching for the tax lever’. But he is, but with just slightly less enthusiasm than Labour. Clegg, for example, told The Spectator that 100 percent of the deficit reduction should come from cuts. Here is a man not reaching for the tax lever. The Tories are – with, I suspect, VAT rises to 20 percent or more. In my view, they are right to. Osborne said the real problem is bloated government, poor productivity etc, and again he is right. But Davis, promoted to that programme because of his non-geeky numeracy, had a killer point: ‘It’s a £5bn difference in spending on a government spend of £622bn. Not to be sniffed at but it’s a detail, really, in truth.’

This is the point where I suspect Osborne stopped being pleased about landing the 8.10am interview slot. Davis continued. ‘Let’s call it the 1 percent of government spending that sets you apart from them’ Ouch. Osborne didn’t refute the figure, saying only that he’d set out his plans in the future.

Davis then moved on. The Tories have promised to ringfence health (unwisely) – wouldn’t that mean 16 percent cuts on non-protected departments like transport, universities, defence.  (It would indeed – see Coffee House passim). Osborne said that there will be cuts whoever wins.  The fundamental choice, he said, is that between a government ‘with energy, vision, leadership, ideas to get the economy moving?  Or do you want what you saw yesterday – an empty budget with no energy, ideas or vision?’ A great way of phrasing it. But in his unexpected chance to address the nation post-Budget day, Osborne missed the chance to convey his energy, vision etc. And as he made his way out of the interview studio, I suspect he knew it.

This failure was crystallised when Osborne was asked for his overall verdict on the Budget. He said he’d wait to see what the IFS has to say this afternoon. But what proportion of the population know what that means? Even those who did would have thought it sounded weak. Some things should never be said out loud. The IFS’s Gemma Tetlow is a heroine, true, but the Tories would do better to hire her than admit to the world that they are waiting for her verdict.
So how has Osborne played it? Read The Sun today: it’s a case study in how to say in thirty words what other newspapers struggle to say in a thousand. As Tom Newton Dunn puts it: "The Budget could be summed up in four words: spend now, pay later. Only he is spending now, and YOU are paying later". Kavanagh’s column has another arsenal of verbal bullets.

There are a thousand ways to nail Brown over the budget and the finances. Talking about a AAA credit rating and an OECD report and an 80/20 tax mix is not the way to do it.

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Show comments
  • Damon Hager

    Osborne is poor at presentation, true, but it’s naive to expect him to present a stark case for swingeing cuts. (Which of course are what’s needed, and which – one hopes – the Tories are secretly envisaging.)

    George tried the honest, ‘blood, sweat and tears’ bit in a speech at the last Conference. Result? An immediate reduction in the Tory poll lead.

    The Tories are trying to square a historically difficult circle. Precisely, they’re a centre-right party aspiring to govern an instinctively left-of-centre nation.

    Let’s be frank. The Brits are, in the final analysis, a nation of lefties: a feckless, workshy, Bolshy lot, complacently addicted to a wasteful state sector, allergic to individual responsibility, atavistically envious of wealth and success, expecting the State to solve their problems and manage their lives at nearly every turn.

    So, to stand the slightest chance of winning, the Tories must present themselves as far more statist, far more ‘tax-happy’, far less fiscally conservative than they actually are.

    This is part of Osborne’s, and Cameron’s, existential dilemma. Their instincts about the economy are right, but they daren’t express them honestly, thus leaving themselves open to the charges of fudge and waffle.

  • stephen

    Sorry it’s Friday afternoon and our more humourless CH’ers should not read on!
    IMHO Mandy has planted a mole in the photo library of Boy George’s bunker. The pic of the Boy on the above CH piece is the same one as used by the Mail today with another unfavourable piece about the unfortunate Boy. It’s an awful pic which makes me think he is a look alike for the Russian -President who displays a most slippery and untrustworthy image. Ha Ha! It would be funny if it was not so seriious with the Boy looking increasingly likely to screw up Dave’s chances of a majority!

  • Stormforce

    I agree. His delivery was stilted and unconfident. It seemd like he was coming down with a bug or something.

  • MCMC

    Not only underprepared, it sounds as if Osborne is just too scared to admit the extent to which cuts are necessary. The Tories are no longer the nasty party, just the cowardly party.

  • Tiberius

    What so many of Cameron’s detractors don’t or can’t see, TGF, is the scale of the job he has, and has had since he became leader.

    Your roll call doesn’t get it, certainly. Matthew d’Ancona gets it better than anyone else I’ve read. Lord Ashcroft gets it. And there is an interesting post from Leo McKinstry on one of today’s threads, which set out the inglorious history of how we got to where we are.

    There are numerous analogies, but most are too depressing to contemplate. I will sign off by saying that if your mighty Reds had thrown in the towel in the face of terrible odds at half time against AC Milan, what a betrayal of their history it would have been.


    Oh dear, Tiberius, as the denouement grows ever closer, it seems you are becoming ever more fractious and are now seeking to take out your frustrations on poor old Fraser for not making with the d’Ancona pom poms as vigorously as you think he should.

    While thee and me are at the extreme ends of the pole on your boy’s leadership, the sad fact, which you find so difficult to handle, is that Fraser is with the bulk of CHers who freely admit that Dave drives them to distraction, is far less than their ideal for a Tory leader, but who is, when all is said and done, not Brown and therefore they feel that they must vote for him and his Clique and clones on the ground that he’s all they’ve got. Which is, of course a far more swingeing condemnation of him than anything Vulture, Verity or myself could proscribe.

    Why Fraser still continues to profess such faith in his precious Cam, as he invariably does, I find impossible to fathom.

  • Ali C

    1. Nulab bankrupted the UK, not George Osborne. He went on Today to try to oppose the government’s complacent spend spend spend (not invest please no weasel words). What he said made sense; Evan prodded and picked and put words into his mouth. No Badger…. expect he’s was home making up more growth stats.

    Give the man a chance, he’s all that stands between us and the IMF. Greek salad anyone?

  • Dan

    Everyone seems keen to jump on the bandwagon re George Osborne, but he’s been in the job for 5 years and I think he will surprise many people. Maybe I’ll be nit-picking myself after the debate but the true test will come when in government.

  • John David Barnett

    No “u” in Osborne.

  • Tiberius

    The post is not objective, TGF. Fraser was clearly looking for something to go native over.

  • annassasin

    Ben G is right on.

    Osbourne must improve. His main event will be the debate on monday. He will be attacked from both sides. Hope he has watched Andrew Niel’s interview of Vince Cable (Vince fell apart, inconsistent, flip flop crazy). So many think he is an economic oracle. I can’t help liking him. Kill him off (doubt he’s able too), and the Lib vote may crumble (if enough people watch). Why don’t conservatives explain properly why we need to cut early???

  • jules

    Ben G,

    Well, I disagree.
    I don’t think much of the media coverage of the Tories for the last few weeks has been about policy; all I seem to hear is “Ashcroft! Ashcroft! Ashcroft” – unless you seem to think mentioning his name is a policy in itself.

    All the media has concentrated their fire on in the last few weeks is the Tories’ mistakes, all of them presentational: the posters, the Ulster negotiations, the reveal of Ashcroft’s status. Presentation is not necessarily indicative of policy and is an effective sideshow, detracting criticism away from Labour’s economic vandalism.

    Only a fool can promise policies at this stage – how can you effectively cost something when you do not know the true state of the accounts? Labour’s giving away the store when it really cannot – lying through its teeth! Osborne being cagey and non-committal – not ideal, but at least there’s less danger of misleading or misrepresentation.

    Like I said, up to the public – do they want honesty or do they want to keep swallowing Labour’s fantasy island tales until they bump back down to earth with a crash.


    Most CHers have long known and been critical of Osborne, his frailties, his snidey personality and his unacceptablity to the voters.

    However, to you lot who are jumping on Fraser’s back for being an objective conservative journalist instead of a Camerloon cheeleader, I would simply point out that it is only very recently that the scales have dropped from Fraser’s eyes on Boy George and the last few months I was able to take considerable pleasure from razzing him over his appearing to act as Georgie boy’s very own Max Clifford.

    I for one applaud Fraser’s new found objectivity which may perhaps just be down to his Viking Queen finding the free rolls of wallpaper to be of unacceptable design and quality.

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