George Osborne has learned his trade from Gordon Brown

by David Talbot

“To bring all these decisions for many benefits over many years together,” Osborne told the House of Commons last Wednesday, “we will introduce into parliament primary legislation – the welfare uprating bill. I hope it commands support from both sides of the House of Commons”.

At that moment a thin smile seemed to escape the chancellor’s lips. Or if it didn’t, it should have done. For it represented the Damascene conversion of George Osborne to the scriptures of a once imperious Gordon Brown. And it was a moment of horribly low cunning that was eerily familiar for the Labour benches.

The announcement managed the near politically impossible. It will raise money, it will be popular and it will trap the opposition. It is vintage Gordon Brown, from the days when he was still known as the iron chancellor rather than the flailing prime minister of more recent memory. Yes, it’s easy to forget, but at one time, Brown was the political master of all he surveyed.

The guttural roar that greeted Osborne’s announcement from the Tory backbenches signified wholehearted approval of their chancellor’s ruse.  Budgets are meant to be about economics. But for the two most political chancellors of the modern era, everything is politics. The statistics, forecasts, tax and public spending changes are immaterial for the political battleground with their hated opposition.

Osborne and Brown are not ready-made bedfellows. They clearly despised each other on a personal level, and were as far removed politically as can be. They are, however, increasingly similar politicians.

For a brief moment during Osborne’s first budget it looked like his politics would be different. Osborne pledged to be upfront about the dire economic challenges facing the country, rather than burying it in the small print like his predecessor but one. “I am not going to hide hard choices from the British people,” he said. “You’re going to hear them straight from me, here in this speech.”

How things change. The economy now, and in the years ahead, is dire. Osborne knows this and came to the House with a terrible hand to play. But the bravado, the burial of detail, the attacks and traps will all from the Brown handbook. Osborne even succeeded in wrong-footing his shadow. That it was Ed Balls, the son of Brown, made it all the sweeter.

The coalition’s raison d’etre is the country’s finances. Everything from Cameron and Osborne down is geared towards winning the economic argument. It has been their narrative since day one and it will be deployed until the last gasp of the general election campaign. But Osborne subtly shifted the narrative on Wednesday to start taking ownership of the future as well; long gone is the much heralded promise of eliminating the nation’s deficit within one parliament.

By saying that the economy is “healing” and “taking time” – whilst laying the blame solely with Labour – at a stroke, Osborne is asking the nation to re-elect him to sort out Labour’s mess.

The welfare trap is just the latest in the chancellor’s Brownite arsenal, and potentially the most toxic for the Labour party. The Conservatives have in large linked deficit reduction with a cut to the welfare bill and, in turn, have linked the profligate welfare spending to the Labour party.

Crude, but there it is. Osborne is effect willing the Labour party to vote against an electorally popular limitation on welfare payments. And judging from Ed Ball’s fumbling in his media responses, the Labour party hasn’t yet deciphered a clear riposte.

Labour will no doubt heave pious scorn on the dastardly Conservative chancellor, but the public will merely glance and nod at Osborne before mumbling dark truths about the Labour party.

It is rare that two sworn political enemies slowly, and perhaps unintentionally, begin to closely resemble each other. The cries from within the Conservative party of Osborne’s bullying, political obsession, macavity-like qualities and now his desire for clear political dividing lines will all be familiar, and now should worry, the Labour fold.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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9 Responses to “George Osborne has learned his trade from Gordon Brown”

  1. william macvean says:

    what is wrong with welfare its for people who have lost their jobs because of sickness or being made redundent.Its for people who have lost their partners and have to bring up their family alone.Why are we making people who are already going hungry and dont have enough money to heat their homes pay for tax cuts for wealthy and rescue banks.

  2. Steven says:

    The way to victory is to be even tougher on claimants than the Tories. Polling shows that this is popular and if you’re not in the game to win then what’s the point.

    Labour should get the better of Osborne by voting against the 1% cap AND instead, propose a benefits freeze.

  3. Robert says:

    I agree William, Labour should vote against the 1% increase. Like Brown, Osborne is not as clever as he thinks he is.

    Steven, what is the point in a Labour Party with less compassion than the Conservatives? None! You should join the Tory Party or UKIP if you think that being tough on claimants is a good idea.

  4. keith says:

    After 13 years of Brown the electorate can now see the consequences of his obsession with political point scoring, not only against the Tories, but also against his own side in trying to dethrone Blair to get the top job.
    Brown may have cultivated, with the aid of his spin doctors, the image of an iron chancellor. but his legacy has now been left bare for us all to see. This man is a disgrace to the Labour party who has left everyone down with a massive debt burdon that we will carry for years to come. This article shows that if the Tories have any sense, they should learn from this and replace Osborne with a more honest chancellor now.

  5. Steven says:

    Robert: “join the Tory Party or UKIP”

    But to suggest an link between values and particular political parties pre-supposes a stability within the political scene which no longer exists: the game now is one of perceptions. Hence David’s disorienting reference to Osborne’s “Brownite arsenal”.

    And, as David points out, Osborne’s trick is to cause Labour to conform to compassionate expectation and humanitarian principle.

    The predicted “dark truths about the Labour party” that will be mumbled by “the public” following a vote against an “electorally popular limitation on benefit payments” would betoken a discernment of compassionate motivation. This would associate Labour with a principled sense of shared humanity. Do we really want to go that far?

  6. Dan McCurry says:

    It’s right to reduce welfare when the economy is doing well, but in the middle of a recession it’s very wrong.
    You also have to take into account that Labour councillors, in the surgeries, are beginning to meet the people who are being made homeless by these policies.

    Miliband needs to show that he’s tough and not be pushed around by Osborne.

  7. LesAbbey says:

    Steven please give us, those that aren’t as swift as they should be, some warning when you are being ironic. At first I thought you must be a member of Progress.

  8. David Talbot says:


    It’s all well and good leaving clever and deeply ironic comments, but don’t suppose for a minute that if Labour votes against Osborne’s proposals (which it seems it will); it will damage the Labour party.

  9. Robert says:

    Thanks Les. I can see now that Steven was being ironic. It is a pity that David Talbot and Rob Marchant are being serious!

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