5 Oct 2015

George ‘Power To The People’ Osborne?

George Osborne was simultaneously mounting a land grab on Labour terrain today while polishing up his free market credentials.


He’d already fed the overnight media with news of his lifting of Labour’s National Infrastructure Commission and his lifting of Lord Adonis off the Labour benches to head it. When he announced what that was all actually about – building houses where some activists wouldn’t like them and railways too – only one person applauded at the clap line. Was it a property developer or an ambitious backbencher?

The new announcement was a re-think of local government. The uniform business rate has gone. Councils can now compete in pushing down business rates. If that attracts more businesses they get to keep the proceeds of growth. Of course, competition has winners and losers.

Professor Tony Travers said this was “much more of a winner takes all approach and there would be losers as well as winners”. John Cridland of the CBI said this approach carried risks but was better than just letting councils decline without giving them the chance to grow.

Labour had a cousin of this policy in its 2015 manifesto. It was planning more redistributive safety nets for councils that fail to compete. But it was buying into the same logic that George Osborne’s team outlined today: some councils do too little to help themselves.

Following on a glitzy feature in the Mail on Sunday, George Osborne kept up the succession campaign with a personal section in the speech explaining how he’d changed. Take another look at me, he was saying. I’m not the narrow Notting Hill type I was but broader in outlook, fixated by the north. I’m not Thatcher’s child, as once I was, but someone who now realises that government levers can help – Heseltine’s child too.

For some, even admirers of George Osborne, it’s all a bit much. “He’s getting ahead of himself a bit,” one supportive MP said. Even those close to the prime minister mutter that the chancellor might be wiser to keep his campaign posters rolled up for the moment.

As for when all this campaigning is going to get more intense, I understand that the prime minister is still hopeful of a 2016 referendum, most likely in September. That, David Cameron and his teamĀ  hope, would give him the opportunity to use the next Tory conference to unveil a massive work programme that would convince people he really was intending to carry on into the summer of 2019.

The full policy schedule would, it is hoped, dampen the speculation about the succession, allow David Cameron to get on with the job at No. 10 and then allow his successor to launch himself or herself at the 2019 Tory conference. To some, that will be like an elaborate plan just waiting to go wrong.

On Wednesday the prime minister will mount his own land grab on Labour terrain. I hear he’s planning to talk about “inequality” and “equality,” delving deep into Labour’s lexicon, if not its policies.

The prime minister and the chancellor are joined at the hip in a programme to own the centre ground and to shift it to the right at the same time.

Can you do that while hacking away at tax credits? Can you get away with talking, as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt did, about how the shift from welfare is about trying to shift British workers’ behaviour and make them more like workers in China or the US? Discuss.

Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter

Tweets by @garygibbonc4