Monday, March 29, 2010

How do you solve a problem like George Osborne?

How do you catch a cloud and bring it down?...

If the Observer is to be believed, Labour intend to target George Osborne as the weak link in the Conservative leadership team. What astonishes me is that it has taken them so long to reach the conclusion.

It may be that, in tonight's 'Ask the Chancellors' debate, George will do quite well against Alistair and Vince, especially if it boils down to a battle of soundbites. However, he still has a barrier to negotiate before he can establish a degree of credibility where it really matters, with the pundits and the public.

I've done a lot of Local Party events over the past year, and one consistent feature is the response when Ros suggests that one rarely hears that what our economy needs is George Osborne as Chancellor. That response is not muttering or discontent, it's laughter. I freely admit that Liberal Democrats are hardly likely to display any warmth towards a Conservative politician, but it is unusual for any of them to attract such a degree of ridicule.

Having been pretty critical of Conservative proposals on tax and the economy, and they can't be called plans in the absence of substance, you might think that I would be personally critical of young Master Osborne. Actually, I think that he's pretty bright, or is at least sensible enough to surround himself with bright people. The problem, as I see it, is that his skill set is wrong.

He has a keen eye for a soundbite, as I noted earlier, and his call for a dramatic rise in inheritance tax thresholds was well-timed and achieved its political aim, to prevent Labour from calling, and winning, an Autumn 2007 election. The fact that it was, in fiscal terms, barely literate, and would have helped far fewer people than seemed to be the case, was hardly relevant. What it also achieved was to secure his position, despite the doubts about his overall ability to do the job for real.

But now, with the public finances in a desperate state, with the economy fragile, what the country craves is reassurance. And what George doesn't do is reassure. Worse still, he seems determined to offer tax cuts in the belief that the soundbite is enough. The notion that people want to know how any cut in taxes will be funded doesn't seem to have registered, creating a sense that he doesn't really have what it takes.

And so the pressure is on today. Another announcement of tax cuts, this time National Insurance Contributions, is a typically flashy effort, with nothing to indicate how it will be funded. Tonight, you can be sure that he'll be pressed on the point. He'd better have a good answer...

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