Osborne should have been laughed out of the Commons on Wednesday

The Chancellor's luck will run out before the next general election

March 16, 2016
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street, London, with his Treasury team, before heading to the House of Commons to deliver his Budget. ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street, London, with his Treasury team, before heading to the House of Commons to deliver his Budget. ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Read more: Budget 2016: the Prospect panel 

There is a theme to George Osborne’s Budgets. After eight of them (and six autumn statements and two comprehensive spending reviews) that’s not really a surprise.

There are the targets regularly set—and the targets missed, just as regularly. The jokes that are unfunny—even by the low standards set by the Commons. The stealing of announcements from other ministers. The devil in the detail. The major changes announced without consultation. The far from compelling rabbit pulled from the hat. And, of course, the attempt to shoe-horn it all into a theme.

Today’s Budget was no different. We had the concession on missed targets (the Chancellor was aiming for debt to fall as a proportion of GDP, but it has not done). We had jibes about Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats which there is no point in repeating; having lost the will to live while hearing them there I certainly have no intention of retyping them. Announcements on maths teaching (which may be made compulsory until age 18) and a longer school day were lifted from the Secretary of State for Education. The announcement of New Mayors, including the Mayor (Thane perhaps?) of East Anglia, were lifted from the Department of Communities and Local Government. Not forgetting the bathetic plan to refurbish the Hall for Cornwall venue, which was taken from a bin somewhere in Whitehall.

Masses of revenue from Corporation Tax has been shuffled between years, in order to give the illusion that Osborne will his target of a fiscal surplus. There was also a sly introduction of the pension ISA which could undermine the success of auto-enrolment—one of the last remaining sensible parts of our pension system. There was the sugar tax. And all of it wrapped up as a budget for the “next generation." It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad.

This apology for a Budget—the fourth in a year—should have been loudly laughed out of the Commons. The Chancellor has apparently only just discovered since the end of November (16 weeks ago) that the global economy is getting dicey. It is a surprise that Osborne didn’t feel the need to announce a programme of Ursine Sylvan washroom facilities. Fortunately for the Chancellor, Jeremy Corbyn had upgraded his performance from bewildered geography supply teacher to angry music teacher (I know what they look like, and should do—I had one at my alma mater).

The substantive problems with this Budget are simply stated. Growth forecasts have been downgraded to around 2 per cent till 2020. Lower growth is lower wealth. As is lower productivity, which was also slipped out in the Budget speech. Osborne has no solution to this challenge except cargo cult re-announcements: CrossRail 2, HS3 and—wait for it—a feasibility study into a £6bn trans-Pennine Tunnel that will never be built. In my opinion Osborne looks and sounds more and more like Lyle Lanley, the smooth-talking salesman from the Simpsons who sells towns monorails. The difference is that Lanley leaves town before the monorail fails. Osborne has that move sewn up too—he plans to move on before his plans don’t succeed. But his difficulty is that, as he wants to be Prime Minister, he is not moving town; he is moving next door. His luck is already running thin, and it will run out before the next election.

The story is told of the MP commenting to Ernest Bevin, a Cabinet Minister in Clement Attlee's government, that his fellow minister Herbert Morrison was "his own worst enemy". To this, Bevin is alleged to have growled back "Not while I’m alive, he ain’t." Perhaps in Osborne we finally have the politician who is definitively his own worst enemy.