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Wednesday, March 18, 2015 

Hubris and the wait for nemesis.

You can't help but get a sense of the way the election campaign looks set to pan out from the way the broadcasters have utterly capitulated to David Cameron and the Tories over the debates.  Thanks in part to ITV's apparent desperation to once again host the first debate, with all the bragging rights and ratings that go with it, Dave has made the extremely minor sacrifice of agreeing to one debate with 6 other party leaders at the very start of April.  While the precise format of the replacements for the other two debates haven't been finalised, they're likely to involve interviews with Paxman and a Dimbleby hosted Question Time-athon, each leader lightly grilled by the same audience separately.  Cameron has thus ensured he won't be shown up too much by Farage, while Miliband will be boxed in by both Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon during the one unwieldy session. He's avoided the ignominy of being "empty chaired", nor will he face off one on one against the "despicable, weak" upstart with two kitchens.  As was predictable, the commercial need to broadcast something, anything with the prime minister overcame the principle of refusing to bow to his demands.

Little wonder George Osborne felt able to act with such hubris in his final (God, please let it be his last) budget.  Few other politicians in his position would have with a straight face claimed living standards are higher now than in 2010, not least when the claim rests on a single cherry-picked statistic, itself reliant on the massive drop in inflation due to the oil price halving.  He insisted that, albeit a year later than planned, the debt-to-GDP ratio is falling, the second of his major economic promises made in 2010.  The Office for Budget Responsibility later pointed out this will only happen thanks to a mammoth £20bn in asset sales.  We heard once again the phrases designed to be used as soundbites, "Britain walking tall again", "the comeback country", liable to please the same little minds his previous "march of the makers" and "aspiration nation" did while washing over the rest of us.

There was not to be even the slightest nod to the all too obvious mistakes of this unbelievably overrated in every sense chancellor.  Plan A had long since been abandoned, but so also have we become inured to the prospect of a further 4 years of austerity.  With as little fanfare as he could get away with, Osborne rejigged the spending plans of the autumn statement that set out those "colossal" spending cuts, the same ones he thought wouldn't attract such attention.  He did this not by sensibly spreading out the extra money found down the back of Number 11's sofa in the past four months, loosening the squeeze up to 2018, but setting out a splurge in the final year of the next parliament, equivalent to the entire defence budget.  The ridiculous surplus of £23bn planned for 2020 is thus a slightly less fantastical £7bn.

Except of course these figures are illusionary.  Regardless of the make-up of the government at the next budget, the chance of anything like these plans being set out again is minute.  As the Institute for Fiscal Studies was quick to make clear, they're reliant on the further £12bn in welfare cuts Osborne has long talked about being found, alongside an equally difficult to believe £5bn being raised through clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion.  We're no closer to knowing where the hatchet will fall in the case of the former, no doubt precisely because there is no more fat to trim.  It's an utterly absurd way to run anything, let alone a state, to cut services as harshly as Osborne plans only then to ratchet spending back up again two years later, and he would have to be a complete moron to so much as contemplate doing so.

Osborne is many things, but a complete moron is not one of them.  For this was a budget less about giving activists something to base a case around than making things as difficult as possible for Labour.  Gone is the mess of Osborne's making, the back to the 30s jibe, to be replaced instead by a return to the day to day spending of 1964 instead.  Spent is some of the money earmarked for Labour's daft in any case reduction in tuition fees, Ed Balls saying it would be found elsewhere.  And then we had the "jokes" courtesy of Danny Finkelstein, only accompanied by fatuous policies in order to shoehorn them in, the most desperate of which had to be the non-gag about bands of brothers and Agincourt, at the cost of a million to commemorate it.

With that out of the way, all that was left were the priorities we've become used to from this government and chancellor.  A further lifting of the income tax threshold, which benefits middle earners the most; allowing pensioners to trade in annuities for cash, boosting the Treasury's coffers at the same time; a "Help to Buy" ISA the government will top up, without any further announcements on building the damn houses in the first place; and a new savings allowance, with the first £1,000 tax free, projected to cost £1bn in the first year.  As for those who can't afford to save, or who probably won't be able to reach the £1,000 figure, be glad you got away with your sweet FA.  It also makes ISAs less attractive as a whole, but seeing as the aim probably was for Osborne to be pictured on the front page of the Mail with the sun shining out of his arse, it's doubtful he'll give it a second thought.

Hubris can after all mask anxiety.  This wasn't a budget to win over voters so much as to yet again consolidate the party's core vote.  Bribe after bribe has been thrown at those most likely to turn out, and still the election remains too close to call.  By this point a Tory lead was meant to have developed, only for the polls to continue to suggest a dead heat.  With Osborne having done his bit, with there being little reason to expect a leap post-Budget bounce from what he unveiled, the onus is back on Cameron to haul the Tories over the line.  Thank goodness the broadcasters stood firm then, eh?

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