In narrow party political terms, at least Mr Osborne produced a plan. The same cannot be said of the Liberal Democrats
He may not have an economic strategy, but George Osborne showed he has a clear political game. And it is, in essence, a Thatcherite game: to rally the hard-grafting and upwardly mobile against those they imagine respond to economic adversity by lounging about. In the parlance of the hour, he seeks to set the strivers against the skivers.
That core idea was reflected in the mini-budget’s biggest-ticket item, diddling benefit claimants of the cash they’ll need to cover rising prices for the next three years. But there were other aspects to the white-van Conservatism in which the chancellor plans to escape from the “posh boy” bar in which he has been drinking since cutting top tax in March – most notably a giveaway at the pumps. One backbencher crowed that the duty freeze put “fuel back in the tank” of working-class Toryism, but using desperately scarce resources like this also pours petrol upon the pyre of Cameronian greenery. The chancellor’s enthusiasm for fracking underlined the point.
There are risks here, most obviously renewing the nasty party tag which Tory modernisers once toiled to bury. After Thursday’s newspapers explain how (defensible) fiddling with thresholds will mean more strivers paying 40% tax, Mr Osborne could find that the resentment he had hoped to rouse against the workless will turn back on him instead. Indeed, once working families discover that it is they, and not the workless, who will absorb 60% of the near-freezing of benefits and credits, the strategy could sour. But with no growth, any decision will offend someone. In narrow party political terms, at least Mr Osborne produced a plan.
The same cannot be said of the Liberal Democrats. A year ago, they fought a noble battle to protect the poor from resurgent inflation. On Wednesday, they sold the pass – not merely for one year, but for three in a row. Nick Clegg sat sombrely on the frontbench while the chancellor knocked down his rational hopes for new property taxes with prime ministerial prejudice. In return for compliance with all of this, the Lib Dems secured a modest move against the tax perks of big pensions, bringing in about a quarter of the cash raided from welfare, and a small increase in the personal allowance, worth about half the funds spent on petrol. Dubiously, the Lib Dems have made the allowance the talisman of their achievement in office, even though it was always money showered far and wide. And the chancellor spread Wednesday’s modest rise even further, by sharing it with higher-rate payers too.
The party pleads that welfare would have been cut more savagely without their efforts behind the scenes. Perhaps so, but counterfactual claims are not an electoral strategy, particularly not for a party that recently came eighth in a byelection. Ahead of a spending review, now set for next spring, which will signal the way that the unending pain is to be shared beyond the election, Mr Osborne has thrown down the gauntlet. The Lib Dems are yet to respond, and the clock is not on their side.