The Plan A-Team denied by Gods and Princes
by Kevin Meagher
Last week we were speculating about the political longevity of the occupant of 10 Downing Street. How long could the prime minister survive, waist-deep, as he was in Murdochery?
A week is indeed a long time in politics. Cameron, for now, has clambered free from the mire, replaced by his neighbour, confidante and closest political soulmate, the chancellor of the exchequer.
Who is having a bad day. It seems our damnable economy refuses to behave as he expected, growing at an anaemic 0.2 per cent since April. As he gallantly goes about trying to reduce our budget deficit, the dratted thing goes and increases by 46 billion quid due to a lack of growth in the economy. This infernal, dismal science.
But just as jockeys ride horses and publicans pull pints, chancellors are expected to keep the economy motoring. Unfortunately for George Osborne, things are not going to plan. He currently resembles one of those expensive continental footballers whose reputation precedes them and of whom plenty of goals are not unreasonably expected.
Except that the boy wonder can’t seem to hit the back of the net. We’ve been patient: he has now presided over the economy for four consecutive quarters. He hit the crossbar late last year when growth ran to a giddy 0.5%, but it fell back by exactly the same amount the very next quarter.
Ah, that was down to snow on the pitch, argued George. This time, the Japanese earthquake, bank holidays and the royal wedding have blocked his attempts on goal. God and a prince of the realm making one half of an effective shot-stopping back four. Nothing to do with George’s wayward aim, you understand.
But hold on. What’s this? The prime minister is secretly urging an economic Plan B. His private secretary Jeremy Heywood is said to have been dispatched to the Treasury to read them “the riot act”, commanding our dawdling mandarins to shake a leg and get the economy moving. Has Osborne been Lansley-ed? Is the prime minister taking charge of economic policy?
As usual, he was emollience itself: “Unlike previous governments, there there is one team at the heart of this government”, Cameron insisted yesterday morning, “that is the chancellor and the prime minister working together”. One team indeed, but is it the plan A-Team?
From star striker to flopping forward: the chancellor is looking like a questionable investment these days. Paradoxial, really, that such a political beast is letting economic dogma get in the way of smart politics. He has made the mistake of hemming himself in, turning deficit reduction into a millennial cult.
It should be simple. Plan A is not delivering the goods, so amend to Plan B. But the chancellor remains defiant. Perhaps it stems from all the criticism he received about his lack of interest or even his aptitude in matters economic.
So the laddie’s not for turning. Could it be, though, that he is clinging to a policy that is plainly not delivering because he does not want to appear intellectually pliable? Are factories closing to appease George’s self-esteem?
By narrowing his range of options and refusing to flex to the harsh realities of a flatlining economy, he leaves his opponents acres of political and economic space to put forward eminently reasonable alternative suggestions to stimulate the economy. He is left looking defensive and stubborn. A roadblock, dare I say it, to reform.
We have been here before. The government’s masochism on the deficit feels a bit like the days when the Tories were trying to ram through the poll tax. The policy intention is clear but the delivery becomes problematic which in turn makes the selling impossible which leads to grievous political fallout.
I wrote last month that the chancellor needs a political plan B as much as he needs an economic one. Gordon Brown’s quip that there are only two kinds of chancellor: those who fail and those who get out in time is perhaps beginning to ring in Osborne’s lughole. Failing chancellors, it is fair to say, tend not to prosper.
Despite his breezy support for the chancellor, the prime minister is discreetly strapping on his parachute. He is learning from a great master. Tony Blair was adept at inching away from people he had once courted, but for whom love had soured.
He did it twice early on in his premiership entreating Frank Field to “think the unthinkable” on welfare reform and leading Roy Jenkins up the garden path on electoral reform. Blair judged both men’s conclusions to be undeliverable and junked their proposals wholesale. He junked them too. That’s politics for you; and you cannot argue with the man who went on to govern for the next decade.
Similarly Cameron will be reckoning that the public has been patient and taken its medicine and now wants to know when the economic fever will pass. Either Osborne knows the answer or Cameron will be forced to seek out a second opinion. He will recognise that even the ideologues in his party who bluster on about deficit reduction will ultimately put political self-preservation ahead of economic philosophy.
Which is all bad news for George. Once the Sundance Kid to Cameron’s Butch Cassidy, the cursed relationship between the occupants of Downing Street may be about to claim a new victim.
Surely George is too smart to let it?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.