Comment: Osborne’s mistakes pile up, but he remains secure
It's been another bad week for George Osborne. Actually most weeks recently have been pretty bad, but this one has been horrendous. In the space of just seven days a whole host of news stories have emerged that damage his reputation for economic competence.
It was announced that unemployment has grown to 7.9%. Then the IMF revised its growth figures for the UK economy in 2013 down from one per cent to 0.7%, and implied Osborne's current approach was problematic. A report by the think-tank Civitas suggested that Osborne wasn't doing enough to help British manufacturing, while an academic paper demonstrated that some of the chief theoretical arguments justifying austerity were seriously flawed. To end the week on an even worse note, Friday afternoon saw Fitch, one of the three major ratings agencies, downgrading the UK's credit rating from AAA to AA+.
Osborne will now be spending the weekend in suspense over the latest economic figures due on Thursday. Even if they reveal that we've managed to avoid a triple-dip recession, it's going to take an awful lot of spinning to suggest that the UK economy is on the mend. After all, no Chancellor wants to be associated with a set of economic figures that look like the blueprints for a roller-coaster ride at Alton Towers.
Napoleon famously said that he liked lucky generals, and one thing Osborne hasn't been is lucky. Several events, like the ongoing Eurozone crisis, have been beyond his control. However a huge amount of his present woes are of his own making. Even if you agree with his policies, there's no getting away from what a fiasco last year's Budget was. Equally he has an unfortunate habit of hemming himself in by creating hostages to fortune.
He famously stated: "Our first benchmark is to cut the deficit more quickly to safeguard Britain’s credit rating. I know that we are taking a political gamble to set this up as a measure of success". This has now come back to haunt him like "abolishing boom and bust" did for Gordon Brown and "je ne regrette rien" for Norman Lamont. He previously argued that austerity was vital to keep the confidence of the credit rating agencies and the IMF. Now that they're turning on him, he's frantically backtracking to suggest their opinions don't matter quite as much as he made out. He's also repeatedly tried to justify his policies by quoting predicted growth figures. The trouble is almost every prediction from 2010 onwards has had to be revised significantly downwards making Osborne look like the chancellor who's always promising jam tomorrow.
John Major's government tried to capitalise on the economic pain their policies caused with the straight-talking campaign slogan "yes it hurt, yes it worked". Osborne and Cameron currently seem to be using the variation of "yes it's hurting, but it's working". The trouble is: it's not. By most objective standards set by the chancellor, or by outside observers, the UK economy is not improving.
Equally Osborne hasn't helped himself by his unwillingness to give interviews to explain or justify his policies. Some Tory MPs are still uncomfortable about the way Chloe Smith was sent to take on Paxman on Newsnight. Generally if you turn on a politics discussion show and hear the words "here to talk about the economy…" nine times out of ten it's either followed by either Danny Alexander or Vince Cable.
Despite all this Osborne remains politically secure. In British politics there's no such thing as an indispensable man, but at the moment he's the nearest thing to it. This is due to a number of factors.
One is that people aren't exactly lining up to replace him. Normally MPs are fighting, biting and scratching to climb the greasy poll in order to get to the top. There are three jobs usually seen as the stepping stones to No10: home secretary, foreign secretary and chancellor. But with just over two years to go to the election, the last one looks like a poisoned chalice. No ambitious MP with any sense currently wants it on their CV if they plan to run for the leadership after 2015.
Secondly David Cameron would find it very hard to get rid of him, even if he wanted to. Putting aside the issue of their personal friendship for a second, Cameron has invested much of his own personal prestige in arguing that cuts and austerity are the only way forward. Unlike the New Labour years where Brown frequently pursued policies at direct loggerheads with Number Ten, almost everything that Osborne has done has been political endorsed by Cameron to the point that it's now impossible for him to disassociate himself. If he stands up now and says Osborne was wrong he's basically admitting he was wrong.
Finally there is the fact that Osborne serves a rather useful role as a political lightening conductor for Cameron. Chancellors are rarely popular at the best of times and these are not the best of time. A recent Ipsos Mori poll suggests that he's the least popular chancellor since the early 90s. It's certainly hard to imagine many other incumbents of Number 11 being booed like Osborne was at the Olympics. To paraphrase Jeremy Paxman talking about the English, Osborne lacks the affability of Alistair Darling, the charm of Ken Clark, or the directness of Gordon Brown. As a result a lot of the political anger over the coalition is focused on him, leaving others, including Cameron, relatively unscathed. Norman Tebbit used to do something similar for Thatcher during the 1980s with his pantomime villain routine.
Because of this, Osborne is highly likely to still be in office come 2015 unless he chooses to resign. The trouble is he could also prove to be the party's biggest electoral liability if bad news continues to stack up at the current rate.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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