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