A few Conservatives believe that George Osborne isn’t really a Conservative at all – that he is a metropolitan liberal and believes in nothing at all and is really New Labour by other means. A moment’s pause shows that these views are incoherent. One can’t be both New Labour and believe in nothing, tempting though it sometimes is to believe otherwise. And urban liberals have their convictions, too – that opponents of same-sex marriage are out-of-date, for example, or that one-earner couples are a throwback to the past.
Since these are views that the Chancellor seems to hold, the claim that he can be defined as a metropolitan liberal is close to the centre of the target, but not quite in the gold. Certainly, his instincts are liberal and his orientation towards the future: you might say that as a student of history he learned to look forward, not back. But what marks him out is an uncomplicated belief in winning – one which is more unusual in “the natural party of government” than you might believe, at least since it was convulsed by the Europe issue.
Sometimes, his instinct for winning works – as it did when, with inheritance tax and stamp duty pledges, he frightened Gordon Brown off holding a snap election in 2007. Sometimes it doesn’t: consider the “omnishambles” budget – although it can be argued that, in this instance, he was thinking too much about raising revenue and not enough about the next election. But through both his own and the Government’s ups and downs, one point has stayed fixed: his self-confidence in his own abilities – his belief that his instincts are winning instincts.
Since he effectively co-runs the Conservative Party with David Cameron, in a partnership between Prime Minister and Chancellor of unusual harmony, he must thus take some of the blame for allowing a rival party to grow to its right – something that no British Tory leader since Peel has allowed to happen. But if Osborne shares responsibility for losing voters to UKIP, he must also take credit for striving more than any other senior Conservative to try to win them back – especially if they live, like other voters the Chancellor has in mind, in marginal seats.
Admittedly, Osborne is in no position to claim that he has eliminated the structural deficit. And there has been no consistent theme to his tenure first as Shadow Chancellor and then as the real thing: he has journeyed from lower, flatter and simpler taxes through sharing the proceeds of growth through “austerity” through the omnishambles to his latest reincarnation as Estuary Osborne – White Van George (as Peter Hoskin labelled him recently on this site), complete with brisk new haircut, Thea Rogers, and a wandering glottal stop.
But consider how single-mindedly he is now targeting the voters the Tories need to win, in those midlands and northern marginals that this site tends to go on about – the Bolton Wests on whose fate the next election will turn. His last budget swept away the constrictions on buying annuities, and the polls ticked briefly upwards afterwards. The test of yesterday’s Autumn Statement will be less whether it has a similar effect than whether it confirms in the minds of voters a simple thought: that he and Cameron are more trustworthy guardians of the economy than Eds Miliband and Balls.
And yesterday, he threw the kitchen sink at both – or, rather, would have done if he had a budget surplus from which to buy one in the first place. But look at what he did with what he had. Does it hit your wallet when you fill up your tank? Here’s your fuel duty freeze. Do you want the value of your ISA to pass to your spouse if you die first? Here’s a tax break to help. Do you want more votes in your marginal seat? Here’s some dosh for a new by-pass (even if bits of it are being reannounced). Might we need you next May for confidence and supply? Here’s corporation tax for Northern Ireland – maybe.
Bits of the statement reflected Osborne’s own interests, such as those new theatre tax incentives. (The Chancellor has worked away at blunting the anti-Tory reflexes of the arts establishments.) Other parts nodded to newspaper campaigns, such as his proposals to help homeless veterans, or to backbench ones – as shown in that air passenger duty reduction – and, as we predicted, to the ConservativeHome manifesto. The use of shale gas proceeds to fund northern infrastructure indicates that there is more to Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse ideal than rhetoric. (Remember: his seat is near Manchester.)
Above all, the stamp duty cut – another cause championed by the site – hit the political sweet spot: that’s to say, a tax cut whose benefits will be felt before next May, indeed now. Did he give any hint of how all this will be properly funded, given the unconquered mountain of the deficit? No. Was the Statement tarnished by gimmicks? Yes – legislation to specify the elimination of the deficit in the next Parliament is no substitute for a Balanced Budget Rule. Do his figures add up? We will see what discoveries the morning brings with it, but the projected savings from new tax avoidance clampdowns look ropey.
None the less, the Chancellor is somehow greater than the sum of these tactical parts. Perhaps it is because recovery has come under his stewardship, together with jobs and growth (though not yet with a sense of prosperity). Maybe it is because he has made some of the right decisions – the unpopular cut in the 50p rate, the corporation tax cuts, the raising of the income tax threshold. Perhaps it is because on nuclear, airports and infrastructure he has been on the right side of the argument. Maybe his psychological mastery of Ed Balls in the Commons has played a part.
None of this will convince his critics – outside the Conservative family and within it, too. The metropolitan liberal charge sticks. But it invites a response: namely, that liberals, social and economic, are part of that family too. Osborne is thus no less a part of it than his critics. And no member of it is working harder for its electoral future – targeting marginal seats, soothing anxious backbenches, bigging up their local work (and how he has boosted it), taking the fight to Labour, campaigning for a Tory majority but ready for a hung Parliament. I give you George Osborne, Conservative – “one of us”.