Running fiscal plans five years in advance doesn't workby Anatole Kaletsky / March 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Say one thing, then do the opposite—and get the credit for both. This rhetorical technique, sometimes attributed to Bill Clinton or Tony Blair and dubbed “triangulation,” goes back at least to the Sophists and could probably be traced to the earliest origins of politics, millennia before. George Osborne, in all five of his Budgets, culminating in today’s pre-election performance, has proved himself a master of this art.
Ever since the 2010 “emergency” Budget which supposedly saved Britain from Labour-induced bankruptcy, reactions to Osborne’s policies have followed a perfect pattern of triangulation. First Osborne wins praise for his unbending determination to balance the government’s books and cure Britain’s debt addiction. Then the nation gives thanks for his pragmatism in refraining from deeper austerity after he misses his targets. Next comes more acclaim for Osborne’s courage in setting tough new targets, followed by further relief when he spares voters from more punishment as his new objectives turn out to be unattainable—and so on. This is the quality praised by the Financial Times in its pre-Budget editorial as the Chancellor’s “inner malleability that belies his unbending manner.”
The general election will depend largely on whether the 2015 Budget marks the ultimate apotheosis of Osborne’s triangulation or finally exposes this political trick. Opinion polls suggest that economic judgements about fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets, spending cuts, austerity and so on will be decisive. But these questions of economic management can be addressed in two different ways.
The normal formulation is the one implicit in Osborne’s Budget:
“How will the government reduce deficits and public spending, thereby avoiding national bankruptcy and laying the foundations for decent economic growth?”
But the same question could be asked the other way round:
“What should be the government’s priorities in managing public spending and in collecting whatever taxes are needed to finance sustainably a post-Thatcher welfare state under conditions of decent economic growth?”
Depending on which question is asked voters have totally divergent views about the party that offers better answers. The Tories are seen as prudent stewards of the national finances, so when the question is posed in terms avoiding profligacy and averting national bankruptcy, they win hands down. But…