Andrew Whitaker: Tories shouldn’t Bragg quite yet
THE socialist singer-songwriter Billy Bragg once wrote of “those braying voices on the right of the House” (of Commons) in an anti-Tory song penned by the artist called It Says Here back in the 1980s during the high watermark of Thatcherism.
When George Osborne gets to his feet in the Commons today to deliver the first budget of a majority Tory government in nearly two decades, the opposition benches should prepare to be deafened by such tones from the governing party’s MPs.
The chancellor will be feted as an all-conquering hero by those on the Tory benches, who will view the budget as the first chance in nearly 20 years to put the party’s own inimitable and undiluted stamp on the nation’s public finances.
Labour MPs are almost certainly in for an afternoon of having their faces rubbed in the dust as the Tory faithful express their adulation to the man they credit with having masterminded their victory.
It’s true that a great many people in the Tory Party love Osborne, and the Chancellor does not necessarily give the impression of being a man who is one to buck a trend.
Osborne is widely thought to be the brains behind the brutally effective, but utterly divisive, campaign the Tories ran in key marginal English constituencies when voters were swamped with adverts warning of an overbearing Scottish influence on a minority Labour government.
The Chancellor radiates an image of a man who is utterly convinced there is no finer political brain than his at Westminster and who sees himself as being unrivalled as an astute electoral tactician.
The Tories have not exactly been magnanimous in victory, with David Cameron recently rebuked by acting Labour leader Harriet Harman in the Commons for “gloating” about the party’s decisive election win on 7 May.
Osborne and Cameron appear to have as good a working relationship as any Prime Minister and Chancellor since that of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson, the man she described as “my brilliant chancellor” at the height of her domination in the 1980s.
Lawson, who like Osborne didn’t do modesty, even suggested he was presiding over an economic miracle during what became known as the “Lawson Boom” of the late 1980s when the economy appeared to be soaring amid tax cuts for top earners and deregulation of the City of London, only for it to crash into recession in the early 1990s.
It’s sometimes a politician’s belief in their own invincibility that can prove to be their eventual undoing and so it was with Lawson who would resign in 1989 following a clash with Thatcher over the economy and Europe.
Since the general election there has already been much commentary about Osborne positioning himself as Cameron’s heir apparent.
The buzz is that Osborne’s main challengers for the top job are likely to be London Mayor Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May.
Cameron and Osborne have already moved quickly to establish what they hope will be a Tory hegemony with a plan to reduce the number of MPs by changing the boundaries in a way likely to disadvantage Labour.
So should Labour, chastened by a shock defeat, fear this most political of chancellors who appears supremely confident of locking his opponents out of power for a generation?
Clearly Labour is in disarray after its first outright loss at the hands of the Tories in 23 years, but the majority the next Tory leader will go into the 2020 election defending now stands at a dozen seats and a far cry from the 100-plus presided over by Thatcher for most of the 1980s.
If Labour picks the right leader it is not impossible that the party could effectively target Osborne as the man who speaks for the City of London and who simply does not get the day-to-day struggles facing working people.
May’s electoral disaster for Labour showed the party cannot simply rely on a section of the electorate viewing the Tory leadership as overly wealthy and out of touch, but come the 2020 election it will be 15 years since Osborne became shadow chancellor.
Political history is littered with chancellors who struggled in office after their move from Number 11 to Number 10 Downing Street, such as Gordon Brown, John Major and James Callaghan.
In today’s budget, the UK’s welfare state is likely to come under its most sustained onslaught of cuts in decades and it’s not just the most poverty-stricken who will be hit hard.
The loss of social provision, such as the reported likely withdrawal of social housing subsidies for people on modest incomes, can affect most social groups in society and an astute Labour leader could take a Prime Minister Osborne to task on this.
Of course Osborne is no certainty to become Tory leader and it’s a real possibility that Johnson or May could yet thwart his ambitions.
As for Johnson, it’s difficult to think of a politician who has got away with so much in living memory, including a recent statement that the advisory cabinet post handed to him by the Prime Minister was a “zero-hours contract, not a job” on top of his salary of £210,971-a-year as both an MP and Mayor of London.
But Johnson is also the man who twice defeated one of the most popular Labour politicians of recent times in Ken Livingstone, and is therefore perhaps more of a wildcard than Osborne.
Of course the Labour Party has it all to do to win in 2020 and it’s possible it will elect a leader who does not have the capacity to take enough seats from the Tories to return to power.
But for all his skills as a political chancellor and the pivotal role he played in the Tory win next in May, Osborne is also a politician who has presided over the Pasty Tax and the Bedroom Tax.
It’s also suggested that at some time or other, Osborne will seek to cut tax for the wealthiest down to as little as 40p in the pound – something last tried out by Nigel Lawson in the late 1980s, just a few years before the Tories faced economic and political crisis.
Budget day for Labour will be a gruesome experience, but as the Tories bask in self-congratulation while making deep cuts to welfare, the opposition should spare a thought as to whether Osborne really is the political titan he’s often styled as.