Monday 21 March 2016

Is George Osborne Finished?

They seek him here, they seek him there. Those lobby hacks seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That demned elusive ... Chancellor of the Exchequer. Okay, so my reworked rhyme lifted from the Scarlet Pimpernel doesn't work. But neither do Osborne's sums, so all is balanced in the world. Well, what a torrid few days for the Tories - and not in a good way. To be sure, when Nicky Morgan was wheeled out on Thursday to announce on Question Time that the planned cut to Personal Independence Payments wasn't happening, it was obvious the government was in deep trouble. It's not everyday a government rows back on a key budget pledge announced by the Chancellor in the House. But then the real damage was wrought after the odious IDS carpet bombed Downing Street before his deserved departure for the back benches.

After the most unseemly weekend of blue-on-blue actions since the great Europe fall-outs of the early/mid-90s (coincidentally, IDS had a hand in that too), the disarray shows no sign of abating. Osborne has been holed up (hiding) in his bunker behind the curtains of Number 11 all day, even to the extent of skipping the Commons. Instead poor old David Gauke, Osborne's number three in the Treasury, had to carry the shit can instead. Some say Jeremy Corbyn does not provide an "effective opposition", so what does it say about a chancellor who refuses to face even him?

As ludicrous as it was, I can understand the Where's Osbo? game the chancellor is playing. He knows the fall out from the budget and the IDS air strike has badly damaged his position, even to the degree of sundry Tories taking to the Sunday papers to cast doubt on his leadership ambitions - including a kite flying op from supine allies to test the head winds in a hypothetical world where Osborne no longer makes the political weather. He had to go to ground until the row blew away. This is damaging short term, but in his memory are Dave's Dave's debate-dodging antics. At his most slippery, Dave did everything to avoid a one-on-one with the supposedly useless Ed Miliband. Farcical fun for a few weeks, but in the grand scheme of things it meant nothing. It was as significant to the outcome of the election as a game of Whist in Strangers Bar. Osborne is hoping history will repeat twice, and we know what that means: farce.

Making his debut at the dispatch box as the new DWP face, Stephen Crabb - more on him later this week - performed a panicky about face. In trying to salvage the Dave/Osbo project, he announced no more cuts to the social security budget for the remainder of the Parliament. Welcome stuff. Desperate stuff. No sooner had the announcement sunk in, the Treasury intervened to say there were no further plans to cut the budget. An answer in other words that is something less than a promise not to come back for the disabled, and a statement that reeks of so-called "factual accuracy". In other words, so rattled are the government that they can't even perform a u-turn properly.

If 2012 was an omnishambles, then this is a catastrophe. Is the worst over? Osborne has weathered the weekend. The disability cuts have gone away and the government have moved so they won't be caught out on this again. Yet there remains a £4bn problem. The PIPs may no longer be cut, but the government remains committed to their programme of tax cuts for the middle class and those who bathe in used fifties. Where is the money going to come from? They could not make the tax cuts - after all, who's calling for them? I note some noises are being made about adopting Labour's 2015 manifesto and a start made whittling down the bribes they've paid to older voters. If that's where the Tories want to go then the plot has truly been lost.

Can the chancellor come back from this and get the George Osborne Leadership Project back on track? Unfortunately, the answer has to be yes. As much as they're knocking lumps out of each other presently, Osborne remains the best bet for continuity Cameroon. Apart from his compulsion to go out of the way to kick the vulnerable, he is by far the best known Tory from the "modern" wing of the party, has sufficient sense to not put personal ambition before the common interests of British big business - unlike Johnson - and from that same perspective, appears to be doing an okay job at the Treasury. There is no one else. Therefore, if Osborne does crash and burn, it won't be for want of backers among the party establishment.

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