GEORGE Osborne has always been a master tactician first and an economist second. Yesterday’s highly political spending review was no different. Chief in his mind was closing down the lines of attacks his opponents might pursue. In that sense, he is not dissimilar to Gordon Brown, his predecessor but one and sworn enemy. It is easy to see where he learnt his trade; years of being bested by his Labour rival have taken their toll.
His statement to the House of Commons was full of the smoke and mirrors that were the hallmark of Brown’s years as chancellor. Where a cut was large in percentage terms, as in the case of the Culture department (25 per cent), but relatively small in cash terms, he only gave the cash figure (£1.1bn). He rattled off a list of budgets that were “protected”, which were only protected in nominal terms, meaningless when one factors in the impact of rising prices on departmental spending power.
There were also fuzzy, unfunded pledges to soften the blow of real cuts. The Educational Maintenance Allowance – the grant given to poor sixth-formers – would be replaced by “more targeted support”. No-one in government seems to know what this “targeted support” will consist of – or how much it will cost.
Again and again, the chancellor wrong-footed Labour. What about the one-off cold-weather payment that Brown gave to pensioners in the final winter before the election, at a cost of £50m a year? Osborne is keeping it – for good. “In my view higher cold weather payments should be for life, not just for elections,” he declared, barely able to conceal his glee at landing another blow on the opposition.
As he ploughed through the one-hour statement, Osborne’s delivery even began to mimic Brown’s. Lists were read out to a machine-gun rhythm, his finger jabbing the despatch box as each new item of cuts or spending was announced.
Some of the biggest measures were simply omitted. The £1bn-a-year carbon stealth tax that was slapped on big business and public institutions didn’t get a mention in the chancellor’s 27-page statement to the house. Instead, it was quietly revealed later by the energy secretary, when the media were busy digesting the earlier announcements.
The pièce de résistance was the rather disingenuous suggestion that his departmental cuts will somehow be softer than the ones Labour would have had to make (a claim he could only make because of bigger savings in the welfare budget).
It was, of course, nonsense: Labour wants to cut the deficit more slowly than the government does and Osborne knows this. But who cares? This is politics – and George, like Brown, only plays to win.