Would you trust someone with the economy when they don't know what season it is? Well, the British electorate did and as it's winter that means it's Autumn Statement time! How exciting. Alas, a bravura performance from George Osborne it was not. Forced to backpedal on collapsing tax revenues and missed deficit targets, while throwing in the bingo phrases - "the mess we inherited", "Labour's recession", and "long-term economic plan", it was enough to keep the Tory benches in good, if hardly excitable, order. Yet over the way, it was a different story. Rarely have the two Eds been tickled as pink as they were this afternoon. To have Ed Miliband openly mocking you with no comeback ... how can the man who would lead the Tories recover from that? Then came a forensic demolition from Ed Balls, followed by a savaging (a savaging) by Alistair Darling to the chimes of laughter all round. Not good. And then, at the end of the day, putting the boot in as only they know how the Tories' willing little helpers over at BIS blasted Osborne's tax plans as fantasyland economics. Not a great day, all told.
Still, the Autumn Statement is a welcome opportunity to dissect something seldom seen from the Tory benches - a morsel of quivering substance. The headline grabber, and what I'm going to stick to here, was the cut in stamp duty. A nakedly political move, of course, one that has to reach out to voters while punching the opposition in the guts. On turning the electorate's heads, this can be - and is being - spun as the Tory party embracing hardworking Britain (puke) by leaving not inconsiderable sums in their pockets. The ones who really benefit from this, however, are not your archetypal young couple priced out of the market and saving to step up to the housing ladder. No, the big gainers here are buy-to-let landlords, the majority of whom handle property of modest to middling values. Since Thatcher's council house sell off in the 80s, the constituency has been assiduously cultivated and protected by the Tories. Today's stamp duty announcement might have perceived swing voter appeal, but it's another tax payer handout to private rental.
On the other hand, by whacking up stamp duty for the 2% of homebuyers with cash to splash on £25m properties Osborne
But Osborne's biggest error are the mixed messages he's sending out. The economy is growing strongly, but things are still "precarious". The public finances are under control, but deficit spending and public debt are growing again. We need fiscal discipline, but the government are splurging money on tax cuts and road building. From this a coherent message Osborne hopes to fashion. But he won't. Every new spending announcement he makes undermines claims against Labour's so-called profligacy. The unearned lead the Tories have on economics and finances are, unsurprisingly, starting to slip and with the government having very little to say about people's actual standards of living, this is ground Labour can make up between now and election day. Careless, yes. Savvy, definitely not.
This will be Osborne's last autumn statement, and is to be noted above all for its incoherence and wishful thinking. In that respect, as the chancellor's stewardship of the economy draws to a close he ended as he started.