Over A Barrel: George Osborne’s First Budget

"Look, ma - no proles!"

“Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.” If a quote from a figure in the new Tory (sorry, Coalition) administration has revealed more about the way in which it conceives the world, I’ve yet to find it. Quoted in today’s Telegraph, Richard Balfe explains the government’s approach to public sector negotiation. Mr Balfe is – ha – David Cameron’s envoy to the unions, and his position is simple: pensions will be used as a cosh with which to force unions to accept the swingeing cuts (£100bn over 5 years) George Osborne announced in this week’s Budget. We’re not so much all in this together as all under the same thumb.

This week’s Budget still didn’t please everyone on the right – two blogs at The Spectator, one from Andrew Haldenby and another from Matthew Sinclair, expressed early on the insatiable lust on the right for unravelling the state. But coverage from the Tory press was largely swooning – the Torygraph’s sketchwriter, Andrew Gimson, has never been quite so panting, for instance. Indeed, it’s hard to see the Liberal Democrat influence in the programme detailed by Osborne – one might emphasise the rise in Capital Gains Tax, except that it is so woefully far from being in line with income taxation that it makes a better argument for the strength of Tory backbenchers. If you were so minded, you might also point to the lift in the lowest rate of income tax. Certainly, Clegg was tugging his forelock in gratitude in the chamber. But this is small recompense for the party and its supporters.

Certainly, Cameron has made it known that, when he goes on holiday in August and on paternity leave in September, he won’t be continuing the ‘carry-on’ of Prescott taking over from Blair. Nick will not be let anywhere near the levers of state, whilst his erstwhile deputy, Vince Cable, will be sent on to the first BBC Question Time following the Budget to defend the indefensible. Cable was a sorry figure on Thursday night, all downcast gaze and half-hearted, irritable retorts. The audience gave him a much rougher time than they did Ed Balls, who turned in a pretty creditable performance which will help his profile in the Labour leadership race. The hapless Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, meanwhile, was let loose on Newsnight on the evening of the Budget to be comprehensively bested by, of all people, Liam Byrne. The Liberal Democrats are providing inimitable political cover, but what are they getting in return if not power and influence?

Because you don’t have to take David Miliband’s word for it – the Institute for Fiscal Studies made it plain that this Budget will hurt the poorest hardest. It’s no great surprise that Simon Hughes has already indicated he might vote against the rise in VAT – Liberal Democrats representing constituencies like his, from Sarah Teather to Lynne Featherstone, will be loath to cut benefits, freeze wages, and raise VAT. If they don’t, Hopi Sen’s mischievous theory will surely be the only one which fits all the facts.

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