Yesterday saw the Chancellor and Prime Minister substantially build on the Conservatives’ audacious rebranding process first seen just before the General Election. This was a Budget that would have even out-dazzled New Labour in its blatant appeal to every political spectrum.
Apparently, the Conservatives are now the corporation tax cutting, non-dom busting, NHS-supporting, welfare-cutting, inheritance tax-cutting party of the working people. We’re not sure who would turn in their grave first, Thatcher or Attlee. Certainly, it’s a pitch that bewilders the Left and Right in equal measure – but of course, it’s not designed for either.
This is the first fully Conservative budget since 1996. That was the year of Dolly the Sheep, the Spice Girls, Madonna as Evita, and the launch of both Ebay and DVDs. Many of our (and your) paid interns would have been born that year. And if you think that is depressing enough, George Osborne would have been 26.
But now, he is a man at the height of his power. He knows he is the heir to Cameron, and even Boris Johnson had to force a smile from a crowded corner of the House of Commons, as the Chancellor made a joke at his expense yesterday. Free from the shackles of the Liberal Democrats – and in the full knowledge that yesterday’s Labour Opposition is a broken party, with a left-wing firebrand as the unions’ choice for Leader – Osborne was quick to make hay while the sun shines.
The Labour shadow Treasury team was once a reasonable force, led by Ed Balls, a political heavyweight in the boxing arena of the Commons chamber. The current Labour team look like they wouldn’t be able to fight their way to the ring. But for Labour, this is a chance for the individual candidates for the top job to show their worth to both voters and business. For once, collective responsibility won’t be so important. Over the next few days, they will have to show what they would support from the Budget, what they would campaign against and what they would do differently.
Many economists may wonder why a country that has the highest growth in Europe – twice that of France – would want to continue to make £27 billion of cuts. But Osborne is still a man on a mission to deliver a balance in the books and then a surplus, even if his deadlines for this continue to slip. His agenda seems one based on social fairness as well as old-school Tory social responsibility – a key aspect of the rebranding that is currently in process.
But the next 24 months are going to be much harder. With Brexit, Grexit and even HSBCBankexit dominating the news now, only one of those – Brexit – will be a live issue one year from now. The Tories will be split, Labour will be split and that is when Osborne’s steady nerve will be tested. In the meantime, his and Cameron’s Rebranding Miracle will continue to be just that. A miracle.
The question is, how many people in this increasingly austere country will continue to believe in them?
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January 21, 2021