GEORGE Osborne is considered the Tory strategist. He stopped Gordon Brown’s general election planning in 2007. Brown wanted an early election after Tony Blair’s resignation as Prime Minister.
But the then shadow chancellor proposed a change to inheritance tax and Brown got cold feet. He may well have won in 2007 but the delay helped the Tories get their act together and when a banking crisis and global recession followed politics changed.
Fast forward to this week and Chancellor Osborne is positioning his party against both Labour and the Lib Dems. He has achieved something that would have appeared impossible in British politics. He has allowed the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and the Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls to agree. So what brilliant idea has united the Deputy Prime Minister and a hated political opponent? Spending cuts. Osborne has committed his party to cut £25 billion of spending in between 2015-2020 if the Conservatives remain in office. This may be brilliant political positioning. But it could have handed the next UK general election to Labour.
The public knew in 2010 that government spending had to be brought under control. Labour were not seen to have a plan. Gordon Brown sought to portray that election as a choice between Labour investment and Tory cuts. It was not credible. His own side, from Chancellor Alistair Darling onwards, counselled that the British public just would not wear it. That is what happened. But the world has moved on. The deficit is falling. There are encouraging economic numbers. International economic bodies have given credit to the coalition government for pursuing a deficit reduction strategy.
So as the mood turns upwards and people look forward to rising wages, is slash and burn on spending a good strategy? There will always be a political market for a smaller state. But it is a constituency that shrinks when times begin to improve. It is in effect a core vote Conservative strategy. It looks ideological rather than what needs to happen. £25bn of cuts is huge. That affects many schools, hospitals and care homes. So Labour now know what to put on every leaflet, tweet and target letter until the 2015 UK election. They need not reveal their economic hand until the election. Why should they? The financial numbers underpinning government expenditure will be unclear until the autumn budget. Clegg’s unequivocal response this week separates the Lib Dems from Osborne’s position and is a good for party morale.
The Scottish dimension is very clear. A probable Labour win in 2015 makes a Yes vote in the referendum increasingly unlikely. Alex Salmond needs a Tory government in London. Badly. Why is he so keen to debate with the Prime Minister? Because Cameron is a Tory, considered posh and above all, English. If Labour look like winning in 2015 then this hurts the SNP. Osborne may just have pulled off a genuine masterstroke. He has found a way to keep the union by losing an election.