The Chancellor had one overall aim at today’s Autumn Statement – balance the need to cut against the need to stem the fear of cuts. By and large he managed that, helped in no small part by the abysmal reaction from the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
Osborne started with his usual happy statistics: economic growth up and happening faster in the north than in the south; deficit falling and still on target to provide a surplus towards the end of the Parliament.
But the Chancellor had a job to do and there were some fairly substantial cuts to government departments announced. These largely fell in areas with low visibility and about which the public cares less, helping him with backbenchers who worried public confidence in the Tories’ commitment to hardworking families would be hit.
Beyond the cuts demanded by the right of his party, the Chancellor also excelled at assuaging fear over cuts felt by the wider public. He proved himself an adept politician by cutting off the two areas where the Government had been exposed in the run-up to today.
Firstly, he undertook a complete u-turn over his plans to scrap tax credits, thus bringing back on board grumpy Tory backbenchers, and reducing the threat to his reputation as a Chancellor for people ‘doing the right thing’. No explanation was given on how he will manage to reduce the welfare budget without addressing tax credits, though experts will surely be crawling over the detail to see where else the axe will fall in the Department for Work and Pensions and this statement could all unravel if this has been done badly.
And for his finale Osborne addressed concerns over the police budget by ring-fencing that money. This was met by cheers from his backbenchers who know that, together with tax credits, this was the area where the Tories were most exposed. By tackling both, he will leave his detractors with little to attack him on. The Shadow Chancellor – never going to excel in formulating a response on police cuts – clearly had to put a big red line through that part of his speech.
The Chancellor is however building up trouble for himself. With his many promises to ring-fence funding he is boxing himself in should the economy take a turn for the worse. Alongside healthcare and overseas aid, the protected budget club has grown to include schools, defence and now the police. Together these make up a substantial chunk of spending and any cuts will have to fall much more drastically on these front line services if the economy goes south.
As for the opposition response, groans and glum faces filled the green benches as McDonnell laboured his way through an incoherent and poorly delivered speech. The Shadow Chancellor used his time to address individual points in the Budget rather than deliver an overarching narrative, leaving colleagues and opponents alike bored. Up until this point, broadcasters will have struggled to find a clip to fill their news items this evening, but McDonnell did not in the end disappoint: he produced Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, to much incredulity and horror from his own side. Osborne leapt on the opportunity, noting it must’ve been McDonnell’s own personally signed copy. And they say it’s Corbyn who needs media training.