How to explain the curious staying power of George Osborne?
A Chancellor who should have been laughed to scorn for saying at the weekend that “the British economy is out of intensive care”. Not only is it a stupid medical metaphor, it is wrong.
Is he trying to compete, in the global race for stupid and wrong medical metaphors, with his shadow, Ed Balls, who gave us “flatlining”, complete with hand gestures, to describe the performance of the economy since 2010? Yes, the level of real gross domestic product has been flattish since then. It has not grown much, although the numbers have bobbled about a bit and are constantly revised. But “to flatline”, as a verb, refers to the trace of a cardiograph or a brain activity monitor, which, when it goes flat, means that the patient is dead.
By picking up this metaphor Osborne appears to concede that things have been worse than they were. Growth has been low, we know that, but the mass unemployment of previous recessions has been avoided; the number of people in work has been rising.
But not only is the “intensive care” phrase inaccurate, it draws attention to the failure of the Chancellor’s policy. Because it is almost exactly what Osborne was saying in November 2010, just six months after the election. “Britain is out of the financial danger zone,” he said then. “The British recovery is on track.” At the Budget the following year he said: “We are able now to set off on the route from rescue to reform, and reform to recovery.” Last Sunday, two years later, he said: “I think we are moving from rescue to recovery.”
Nothing has changed, not even the words the Chancellor uses. Ed Balls’s metaphor may be wrong, but his analysis has been completely right. Cutting public spending “too far and too fast” has – paradoxically, perhaps – failed to cut the deficit. Or, at least, the deficit came down by a quarter in the first year of the Coalition, but this was partly the result of decisions made by the previous government, and in the next two years, last year and the year before, the deficit was the same.
Yet Osborne will just go on saying that “we are moving from rescue to recovery” until it happens to be true. The frustrating thing from Labour’s point of view is that the economy is indeed likely to be moving between now and the next election. So in the battle between the only two election slogans there are – “Time for a change” versus “On the right track, don’t let the other lot ruin it” – message No 2 is likely to win out, even if, for most of the preceding five years, the economy has not grown at all.
Ed Balls might be reflecting on the cruel irony of having been proved right about the need for even more borrowing in the short term, and yet having to fight the election on a promise to stick to Osborne’s spending limits – because by then the moment for the old Keynesian stimulus will have passed.
But Balls will recognise Osborne’s strengths, because he shares two of the most important of them. Both the Chancellor and his shadow are special-adviser politicians; and they are both hard to embarrass. To take the unembarrassability first, they both know that they are unpopular with the general public, and they both care about it, but they also know that their personal unpopularity is not the important thing. They know that politics has always been, and is especially so now, a contest to to be less unpopular than the other lot. (This time, the novelty will be that the election will be fought by four unpopular parties, because no one likes the Liberal Democrats any more, and Ukip start by assuming that everyone is against them.)
But Osborne and Balls are also former special advisers. It is one of Osborne’s peculiarities that he does not subscribe – or even pretend to subscribe – to the fashionable prejudice against the professionalisation of politics. According to his biographer, Janan Ganesh, Osborne was dismissive of the idea that Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, might take over from Gordon Brown in the dying months of the Labour government. Where most people saw Johnson’s life story as orphan, postman and union boss as a great asset, “Osborne saw his immersion in the real world as something of a disadvantage; he did not possess a lived knowledge of Westminster’s sinuous ways.”
Osborne began in politics as a researcher in Conservative HQ and, after a year, became a special adviser (to Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture). His career coincided with the rise of what Professor Peter Hennessy calls the “special adviserdom”, the cadre of party-political advisers in ministerial and opposition offices, and yet, unlike many others of that group, he never pretended to be anything else.
As special advisers, Osborne and Balls both prepared leaders for Prime Minister’s Questions: Osborne worked for Hague; Balls worked for Gordon Brown. So they both know that what matters is the story you tell, not the whole and balanced picture. They both know that, as long as Osborne goes on saying that “we are moving from rescue to recovery”, it doesn’t matter if it is untrue, or barely true, or disputably true most of the time. If it sounds right on 7 May 2015, that’s good enough.