Budget 2011: David Cameron is Ricky Hatton’s Mum

by Jonathan Todd

The current Spectator cover story claims that Conservatives are as struck by panic as they were in the autumn of 2007 when Gordon Brown seemed set to crush them by calling an election. George Osborne saved their bacon then and they look to him to revive them now. Everyone else is looking at Libya. Hence, the impact of the budget will be dimmed. But Osborne will try to pull a big enough rabbit out of his hat to wrest attention away from the middle east.

Osborne doesn’t begrudge Libya coverage, obviously; particularly not if it leads to his boss being seen as a competent and brave war leader. If – and clearly this is a massive if – a stable post-Gaddafi Libya emerges, then the earlier shambles will be largely forgotten and David Cameron will gain kudos, which will make him harder to dislodge from Downing Street. The resignation of Lord Carrington did little to dent the boost that the Falklands war gave Margaret Thatcher at the 1983 general election.

Osborne’s rabbit isn’t intended to divert eyes from Libya or the spotlight from Cameron. It will seek to disorientate Labour and have our leaders confuse tactics with strategy. Fiscal constraints limit the cards in play, but the cards available are all held by Osborne. He knows that he can use them to establish dividing lines that will set the terms of debate. He was as keen a student of Gordon Brown as either Ed Balls or Ed Miliband.

Both of whom will know that the biggest sting is likely to come in the tail of Osborne’s delivery. That’s how Brown used to do it. This way the respondent has least time to calibrate his rebuttal. Osborne pulled this trick last October when his concluding remarks on the spending review contained these words:

“The average saving in departmental budgets will be lower than the previous Government implied in its March budget. Instead of cuts of 20 per cent there will be cuts of 19 per cent over four years”.

This is an eye-catching claim. David Cameron subsequently went on a similar manoeuvre at PMQs. Both were too clever by half.

First, it undermines the strongest Tory attack line: Labour created the deficit and has no plan for addressing it. Labour must have a plan if Osborne is cutting departmental budgets by less than our plan. Shadow ministers should jump at the chance to forcefully make this point whenever ministers afford them the opportunity.

Second, like many eye-catching claims, it is too good to be true. “Gord bless him” was the response immediately after the 2007 budget. But the more the details were picked through, especially the abolition of the 10p tax rate, the less this was the case. The lesson: play it straight. Don’t let your rhetoric outpace the reality. Be open about the trade-offs and the reasoning driving how they have been approached. All of this is especially true in our post-expenses, hyper-cynical times. And it is as important for oppositions as it is for governments.

Cameron has already stupidly supersized his rhetoric: “the most pro-growth budget in a generation”. Such bluster from a prime minister is as much use to a chancellor as Ricky Hatton’s mum shouting “hit him, Ricky” at the ringside. “I never thought of that, Mum”, Ricky later reflected. Osborne may now think similar of Cameron and ruefully so, given that his ability to impact growth is closer to that shown by Hatton when knocked out by Manny Pacquiao than in securing a famous victory against Kostya Tszyu.

Balls might have out-boxed the Hatton beaten by Pacquiao, but we shouldn’t mistake Osborne for such a reduced opponent. Osborne is a smarter operator than Michael Gove, whom Balls so pummelled as shadow education secretary. There will be no missteps. Only precision targeted hits. Irrespective of the current Spectator cover story, the next edition, along with much of the rest of the press, will eulogise him. The rabbit will entice.

The trick for Labour will be to not let it distract. Chasing the rabbit is mere tactics. We should be all strategy. Both Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy define our strategic objectives as a draw on the deficit and a win on growth. I would go further: securing a draw on the deficit is a precondition of avoiding defeat on growth.

Osborne thinks he has won the deficit debate, wants to close it and shift the focus to growth. He declares his actions last year a “rescue mission”, which necessitate no further cuts or tax rises this year. Yet the cuts largely haven’t hit. And it will be more redundancy than rescue when they do.

We can’t let Osborne have a win on the deficit. He pretends that the only choice is his approach to tackling the deficit or not tackling the deficit at all. We only defeat this by having a credible alternative. This demands unflinching straight-forwardness from us that, while they can be better managed than they are being by Osborne, cuts are unavoidable.

Effectively neutralising the deficit debate requires that we don’t go into the growth debate pushing more government as the answer. We need something more nuanced. This might mean a national investment bank or other carefully argued reforms. But it has to be about good Labour reform versus bad Tory reform, not unaffordable Labour spending versus Tory reform.

Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist.

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One Response to “Budget 2011: David Cameron is Ricky Hatton’s Mum”

  1. Robert says:

    Lets be fair he’d be an idiot not to hit out at labour, the Tories I suspect will be in power for at least two terms, if they pull the country out of the shit, they may well be in for three or four terms. I suspect once labour loses the next election the hunt will be on for a new labour person to try and take over the son of Blair, the wife of Blair, god knows, but for me it’s all about my grand kids do they find work a job, if that means the Tories get my vote so be it, Brown lost it.

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