Remember when George Osborne was the Submarine Chancellor? Outside of his Budget set-pieces, he barely ever rose above the surface to speak about the British economy, let alone about the controversies of Europe, its bailouts and its crises. But now, we know, that’s all changed. Right on the heels of his New Year address, he’s given a speech today on the subject of our relationship with the EU.
Naturally, this being a speech by a Chancellor, it dwelt on the economics – and it was rather gloomy about those. There was little, if any, breath expended on the idea that Britain benefits from EU membership. (Which may aggravate Coalition tensions over that “balance of competence” report about migration.) Instead, Osborne delivered a litany of Europe’s economic failings, from youth unemployment to uncompetitive financial regulations, topping it all off with a blunt ultimatum: “We can’t go on like this.”
But equally naturally, this being a speech by Osborne, it was also heavy on politics. Most telling of all was his emphasis on welfare spending. He cited, as David Cameron did in his big speech on Europe last year, Angela Merkel’s complaint that “Europe accounts for just over 7 per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of its economy, and 50 per cent of global social welfare spending.” But this was mere preamble to his real point: that Britain is “capping welfare”. It’s almost as though his speech from last week, which concentrated on benefit cuts, was bleeding into this.
Of course, it’s not surprising that a Chancellor should brag about his policy. In some respects, it may even be welcome. Osborne used to be too remote and too cold a figure; someone whose exclusive public function was to sell deficit reduction in terms of gilt yields and bond markets. But now he’s taking every opportunity to ingratiate himself with the public over issues that matter to them, such as benefits. He wants to force the popular welfare cap, and Labour’s difficulties over the same (see: the Backbencher blog), to the forefront of voters’ minds.
But there’s a longer-term danger in Osborne becoming the face of Government welfare policy – one that’s analogous to that old, poisonous divide between “strivers” and “scroungers”. It now seems like an age since the Tory leadership talked, as Cameron did in his 2009 Conference speech, of the tragedy of a welfare system that traps people into poverty. It seems just as long since the moral aspects of Conservative welfare policy trumped, in public at least, their money-saving ones.
Perhaps this is because of the stuttering progress that’s being made by IDS’s Universal Credit. But, as I wrote recently, the importance and purpose of that policy oughtn’t be forgot. The Tories’ message on benefits should be as compassionate as it is cutting.