George Osborne’s credit is running out

David Cowan 2.00pm

The Osborne brand has been heavily devalued since George Osborne’s politically disastrous budget. It initiated the ‘omnishambles’ of the past few months which was then followed by a ridiculously long set of U-turns over taxes on pasties, caravans, charities, heritage, and petrol. After weeks of government ministers loyally defending the budget these policies were swiftly and unceremoniously ditched with little or no notice. Often these announcements came within days of each other with the consequence that loyal ministers and MPs had been made to look incredibly foolish.

Just think of Chloe Smith on Newsnight after George Osborne announced that the autumn increase in fuel duty would not go ahead. Even the Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening – a loyal Osbornite by all accounts – was kept in the dark about the change of policy. The U-turn over fuel duty was perhaps the most misjudged as it still managed to backfire on George Osborne as that very same morning Ed Balls had called for such a change of direction in The Sun. As a result it looked more like a victory for Ed Balls and another wobble from George Osborne. Many in the Conservative party now see him as “too damaged” to be a credible successor to David Cameron.

Last week Osborne made his bid to regain some of his credibility as de facto Chief Strategist of the Conservative party with a provocative interview in The Spectator where he claimed that Labour aides were “clearly involved” in the Libor scandal, but without mentioning names. When it resulted in a clash in the House of Commons debate that very same day Ed Balls exclaimed “He has impugned my integrity in The Spectator!” It was a very partisan performance delivered in order to boost Conservative MPs’ confidence in him. George Osborne may appear to have done this by securing a parliamentary inquiry into the banking industry, instead of a judicial one, which will undoubtedly question Ed Balls and the other architects of the faulty regulatory system which helped precipitate the financial crisis in 2008.

But to many Conservatives the parliamentary exchange between George Osborne and Ed Balls looked like a sordid display of petty politics- not statesmanship. While it is of course important that Ed Balls et al are made accountable for their disastrous policies, there is still a feeling that George Osborne is far too focused on playing politics instead of doing his job. If this perception dominates how the electorate see him at a time when Britain has gone into a double-dip recession, the Eurozone crisis is engulfing the continent, 2.61 million people still unemployed, and the Bank of England printing money like there is no tomorrow, then the Osborne brand will continue to decline in value.

Within the wider context of the various deficiencies in George Osborne’s economic and financial policies, this run on his credibility is only going to continue. His plan for growth is far too heavily dependent on a policy of cheap credit from the Bank of England and fiscal stimulus from the Treasury (see my article on last year’s Autumn Statement) and clearly is not working. Another problem is that his deficit reduction plan has so far been implemented through tax rises while spending cuts will not actually start to bite until the eve of the next general election and will continue into the next parliament. It is now very likely that on polling day in 2015 the electorate will still be feeling the pinch of meagre growth, rising cost of living, and harsher spending cuts.

A wealth of radical policies for growth has come from across centre-right politics. Conservative MPs have set up groups like the Free Enterprise Group, 2020 Conservatives and The Growth Factory in order to formulate new policies to liberalise the economy. Numerous think tanks have delivered fascinating reports on boosting growth, like the Institute of Economic Affairs’ ‘Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes’, the Centre for Policy Studies’ ‘Small is Best’ publication and helpful infotoon, and the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s 2020 Tax Commission Report. They are all calling for the same spirit of Tory radicalism which has been advanced by Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith, with a clear economic plan based on larger spending cuts, lower taxes, deregulation and sound money.

It is of course difficult for Osborne to recalibrate his economic and financial policies more firmly in this direction because of the Liberal Democrats. But this then begs the question of what happened to ‘Orange Book liberalism’ which was so superbly articulated by David Laws? The coalition seems to baulk at every opportunity of providing a more robust plan for growth. Instead we have seen streams of micro-initiatives put forward while radical policies, like the Beecroft Report’s proposal for making it easier for employers to hire and fire employees, get side-lined. Policy making has become a zero-sum game in which decisions are prevented from happening whilst civil servants are left to their own devices with disastrous consequences, like in this year’s budget. The coalition simply cannot function without an effective policy machine with both parties contributing to new economic radicalism.

George Osborne is undeniably a political animal. He has had numerous political coups like in 2007 when his inheritance tax cut pledge helped spook Brown into bottling the election, but there is a serious job to be done. If we are going to see an effective plan for growth based on spending cuts, lower taxes, deregulation and sound money which has the support of both coalition parties then George Osborne has to focus, otherwise the blood of electoral failure in 2015 will be on his hands.

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