The next election may be a year away, but Osborne is on the campaign trail. It’s a risky strategy

The Chancellor displays some chutzpah in turning deficit reduction to his advantage

Share

Normally, this week in January would mark the unofficial start of the general election campaign. Prime Ministers tend to call an election after four years of a parliament, an anniversary that arrives for David Cameron this May. This time, it is different. There will be no election in 2014. The current parliament runs for five years.

But apart from the absence of an imminent vote, there is a tangible sense that the campaign is under way. The opening salvos in recent days from David Cameron and George Osborne are typical of those that greet the start of election years.

The duo is attempting to convey a message that is both populist and multi-layered. The essence of their pitch is: “Yes, we have achieved a lot, but there is still a long way to go, so don’t risk letting the other lot in.” The message about a smaller state chimes with both their ideological instincts and, as they see it, electoral expediency. It is also a delicate one. Cameron and Osborne seek to claim credit for economic growth, but not so much that they lose their raison d’être, which is tackling the deficit. As a result we got, and will continue to get, good and bad news. On Sunday, Cameron confirmed that pensions would continue to rise. Yesterday, Osborne played tough by insisting that £25bn of cuts were required after 2015.

These are not only two distinct strands of argument, but they are close to being contradictory ones. Osborne declares that £12bn of his planned cuts will come from welfare. That is the easy bit, plucking a figure from the air and then talking vaguely about where the savings will be made.

Pensions might have been a fruitful source, but, in announcing his positive news, Cameron sealed off this particular pot of cash. Iain Duncan Smith, not known for being soft on welfare, has already had to fight his corner against the Chancellor seeking further cuts in this Parliament. We wait to hear where Osborne will turn next in the welfare budget, and what IDS will think of his proposals for the next parliament.

Osborne focuses on welfare reductions, albeit vaguely, but he will also have to explain where the other £13bn of his proposed cuts will come from. Admittedly, such precise figures are all part of the depressing pre-election game. The sums will bear little relation to what happens once the campaign is over.

Indeed, the Chancellor displays considerable chutzpah in seeking to turn the continuing challenge of deficit reduction to his advantage at the next election, given that he had aimed to wipe it out in this parliament. Another accessible way of conveying his message would be: “I screwed it up in this parliament and because I did so it is absolutely essential I continue as Chancellor”.

But his figure of £13bn in non-welfare, post-election spending reductions is not entirely meaningless. It points to a broad intent to cut much further at a time when people are living longer and placing huge additional demands on the state. Osborne has the balance absolutely right, a focus on capital spending and a forensic hunt for savings in current spending. But ideological instinct and electoral calculation combine to make his proposition on both capital and current spending too miserly.

The Chancellor is not more generous partly because he knows that Labour has never won a contentious “tax and spend” election from opposition. It has either challenged the Conservatives’ spending plans and lost, or accepted them and won – specifically, as it did in 1997. Osborne calculates that the deeper he proposes to cut, the harder it will be for Labour to play its 1997 version of the game.
The boys are back in town: George Osborne, David Cameron and William Hague at the Conservative Party Annual Conference in September

Perhaps the “tax and spend” wand will work again for the Conservatives, but the next election will be very different to those in the 1980s and the one in 1992. The British economy is stuttering into life after a global financial crash that raised fundamental questions about how a country dependent on the City, personal debt and housing booms might grow differently and more sustainably in the future. These questions will be as central in 2015 as “tax and spend”.

It also feels very early for the Tory leadership to be playing their election cards. At his press conference yesterday, Nick Clegg argued that the Tories were making a “monumental mistake” in seeking cuts almost solely from the “working poor”. Osborne’s future spending squeeze is not a straightforward proposition from a ruling government, but will be a source of considerable tension within the Coalition during 2014 and the first half of 2015 – a very long time.

Labour has struggled to adapt to the rhythms of a five-year parliament. Most specifically, it agonises over the timing of policy announcements when the election is still a long way off and sometimes gets it badly wrong.

Now Osborne contrives “tax and spend” dividing lines as if the election were this summer. Will he still feel it electorally beneficial to make the same speech in a year’s time? I doubt it. Always fragile, a party’s pre-election “tax and spend” plans can withstand scrutiny for six months but not for a year and a half.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes