The chancellor’s judgment not to increase debt has been vindicated, but he must now go on the attack
Is George Osborne panicking? The one million unemployed young people probably hope so. Ed Miliband hopes so. And, perhaps more surprisingly, the Tory right hopes so too. When I say panicking I don’t of course mean some blind rush to do crazy things. But I do mean a sense of urgency. I want and expect the looming autumn statement to be as big as the economic crisis we face. I want the chancellor and government to feel horror at the implications of three million people being out of work. I want them to stretch every political and intellectual sinew to help families that, across the nation, are running out of money – not at the end of every month, but at the beginning.
Up until now I suspect many Guardian readers are silently nodding their heads and it’s at this point I have to start disappointing you. I don’t believe that the coalition’s economic strategy is working but every fibre in my body tells me that Miliband and Ed Balls would make things worse.
You don’t rub salt in a wound, you don’t give booze to an alcoholic and you don’t increase debt in an international debt crisis. Up to a certain point borrowing can help individuals and countries through a crisis. Recent events across Europe have vindicated Osborne’s judgment that the western economies are well past that point. His decision to implement a credible plan to pay off Britain’s debts means that Britain isn’t facing the kind of economic trauma that has engulfed Italy and is now nipping at French heels.
Britain is borrowing at very low interest rates because of the tough decisions that Osborne has taken. You could argue that the debt reduction strategy amounts to the biggest tax cut in history. Because Britain will save £16.5bn in lower interest payments over the next five years, tomorrow’s taxpayers will be paying less fuel duty, less VAT and less national insurance. Extra money will now stay in Britain for our schools and hospitals; it won’t be going to into the vaults of Chinese banks or to Britain’s other foreign creditors.
But a debt control strategy does not add up to an economic strategy. At the moment the chancellor reminds me of a football manager who has a defence but no attack. Teams are bound to lose without a goalkeeper but they can’t win without a striker.
For every tax cut that Osborne has given to Britain’s job creators he has exacted a bigger tax rise. For every piece of red tape that’s been cut by Whitehall the European Union has added more. The coalition has maintained the expensive energy policies that are damaging our manufacturing base, especially in northern Britain. It hasn’t modernised strike laws. It hasn’t done enough to encourage banks to lend.
Independent of their party leaders, Tory MPs are drawing up ideas to turbo charge the economy, but for some reason Osborne appears resistant to them and to other ideas from London’s thinktanks. Are Liberal Democrats – worried about controversial ideas such as those proposed by Adrian Beecroft — to blame or does the chancellor really believe that he has already done enough to reverse the long slippage down international competitiveness league tables that was our country’s lot during the Labour years?
We’ll know in less than two weeks if Osborne has been panicking enough. All my best sources are worryingly dampening down expectations. I hope they are doing this for tactical reasons. I hope that Osborne has a big surprise hidden up his sleeve. I hope it’s as big for Britain’s economic fortunes as his inheritance tax surprise was for Tory electoral fortunes in 2007.
Whatever happens to the economy the Tories can still win the next election. Voters rarely see elections as referendums on one party’s economic policies. They see elections as a choice between different options. The Conservatives’ fiscal responsibility gives them a huge advantage over Labour and its failure to come to terms with its wasteful and spendthrift reputation. But winning the next election shouldn’t be occupying Osborne’s big political brain. He must put aside any sense that the eurozone crisis means there’s nothing he can do. In a thunderstorm it’s impossible to avoid getting wet but it would be the height of irresponsibility to walk into it without every possible protection.