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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Autumn Statement Blues

I'm not sure the commentariat really knows what to make of George Osborne.  They used to regard him as a great strategist, until it turned out he wasn't.  They have sometimes regarded him as a fiscally tough Chancellor ready to reduce the budget, but his regular forays into spending - or at any rate not cutting enough - keep stymieing that one.  So is he in fact a spendthrift?  Er, not quite - still seems keen to reduce the deficit, even if he wants another three years to do it.  Possibly the real problem is that George Osborne doesn't quite know what he's for either, but he does have enough political talent to keep getting out of tight spots - temporarily at any rate.

There is no doubt that the government's own measurement for its success brands it a failure.  It is nowhere near providing the deficit reduction it claimed was at the heart of its being.  The economic and political arguments over this strategy are many, varied and passionate, although one might at least suggest that a substantial dose of pragmatism/populist cowardice (delete as appropriate) infects Mr. Osborne's decision making.  In fairness to him the Autumn Statement, which had all the potential of a journey into Hades, turned out to be rather more buoyant.  Admittedly, announcing that you're not actually going to place another rise on fuel duty doesn't really count as a cut, and cutting the tax-free allowance for pensions saving doesn't quite hold water as a smash and grab raid on the savings of the rich to fund the poor, but it was still a statement that seemed to be rather more positive than the circumstances deserve.  Mr. Osborne's ability to put silver lining around black holes still seems intact.

He benefits from having Ed Balls as his opponent.  Mr. Balls had a poor time of it in the Commons yesterday, illustrating the perils of preparing your address on the basis of one set of information, and not being able to alter it significantly when another set raises its head.  But even on a good day, Mr. Balls was never going to be a very plausible critic of the government's failure to meet its deficit reduction targets.  If he had his way, there would be no such targets.  Even so, it's a moot point as to how much longer Mr. Osborne's reputation can survive on the lonely acknowledgement that he's not Ed Balls.

Plenty of comment in papers and on the web today.  Peter Oborne in the Telegraph is trenchant in his criticism of Mr. Osborne for his failure to meet his original aims, although he does provide some balance; Jonathan Freedland gives the alternative left-of-centre critique in the Guardian; Paul Goodman responds to Mr. Freedland's characterisation of the Conservative Home website;  on that same website Andrew Lilico provides one of the more positive assessments of the Chancellor's performance, although even that has a sting in the tail; and Nik Darlington gives the moderate TRG view of the Statement here, with a nice overview of the whole Osborne-Balls duel.



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