The competition for most pessimistic chancellor in the history of UK politics continued today with George Osborne’s speech at the Tory party conference in Manchester.
The shadow chancellor made is clear – over and over again – that the future under a Tory government would by one of spending cuts and pay freezes and more cuts and more freezes.He made clear that the future seemed miserable and he continued the bidding to be the most brutally honest politician in the UK today, even upping the ante on his opposite number Alistair Darling. Look out public sector workers, look out MPs, look out users of public services.
Even if the economy does improve Osborne’s world seems grim to the point of despair. Even his audience seemed subdued. They applauded politely when Osborne paused, but real enthusiasm for his chosen topics seemed to take a while to come to the boil.
So, to sum up, in Osborne’s world, just as the private sector improves public sector workers will begin to pay through job losses and frozen salaries. Strange that the public sector seems in line to carry the can for something wealthy bankers started.
But I guess it was ever thus.
There did seem to be an odd contradiction in Osborne’s speech. He attacked Labour for causing the crisis through racking up a huge public debt. Then he feigned disgust that Labour should accuse the Tories of not supporting the bail out. But, Osborne, said, the Tories did back the bail out. David Cameron even interrupted last year’s conference to back it in an act of national unity.
But I can’t help feeling that you can’t back the bail out and then disown the debt that came with it. Having your cake and eating it comes to mind.
But to tax. He said the VAT cut had failed. But failed to say what rate the Tories would return it to. He said the Tories opposed the 50% tax band, but then said they wouldn’t abolish it while the public sector was suffering. He then declared the Tory intention to be harsh on tax evasion but said little about avoidance. He also reserved the right to punish bankers through the tax system.
We seemed to learn a little but not very much about the Tory approach to tax. A few particular issues were in the frame, but there was no big picture about how the system would be used or reformed. Too early to do that? Or, perhaps, too difficult.
But this speech was never about talking to a professional audience of tax advisers. This was about telling the public that things would be very unpleasant in the future so, don’t blame the Tories if they have to do unpleasant things (it certainly wasn’t aimed at cheering them up), and it was about establishing his credentials with the party faithful – those that believe the state is too big. The current crisis has given Osborne the opportunity to cut it down to size. In that sense, perhaps, it was a success.
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