Osborne got his chance to audition for Number 10 today. He hasn’t the fluency and the synthetic chumminess of Cameron. And his emotional range is far narrower than the PM’s. He’s like Nigel Lawson, cool, uneasy, watchful. His brain-power is more than his head can bear and there’s a detached, arrhythmic otherness about him. He’s uncongenial, in the way a good Dr Who should be, but he can’t ad lib at the despatch box. If he’s interrupted he glances upwards, (with worried eyes and Nixon conk), and stares out, bewildered and a little frightened. With a script, and plenty of rehearsal, he has authority even though his basic mode is, ‘I told you so’. He does a good line in swotty, schoolboy scorn.
He told us today that he was right about everything, except eradicating the deficit, where he was half right. The bit that won’t budge, 50 per cent, will be gone by 2020. And we’ll be back in surplus.
Osborne must know he’s regarded as a billionaire’s poodle so he likes to subvert the stereotype by biting the rich and drawing blood. He announced a surcharge on certain non-doms who must pay extra to pop over here once a year for a change of mistress. And he socked it to fatcat firms who ‘artificially’ shift their profits overseas. No need to name them. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and others, have made squillions by offering services that are either discounted or free. So this tax grab sends them a curious message. ‘We love your low prices. Now put them up.’
Osborne’s admiration for the north is known by all and believed by some. He’s loves to repeat his cloth-cap-friendly catch-phrase, ‘the Northern Powerhouse’. And today it received the endorsement of public funds. He sprayed goodies everywhere. A theatre and arts centre in Manchester. Brand new choo-choos puffing across the Pennines. Science parks and tech start-ups in Newcastle and elsewhere. These seats of excellence will support a newly announced mission to Mars in which Britain has just secured the leading role. Osborne commented sarkily:
‘We on this side have often gazed at the barren and desolate wastes of the Red Planet. And we’ve given up hope of finding intelligent life.’
Ed Balls replied with forceful hesitancy, deriding the chancellor in general terms, and clearly using salvaged sound-bites from previous speeches. Then everything changed. He was handed a blue brochure which he managed to riffle through while still on his feet. This precious volume contained the crystal ball prophecies of the OBR whose sacred conclusions Osborne had been quoting freely all afternoon. Balls, rocking and smirking at the despatch box, succeeded in tracking down a killer pie-chart. Bang! He fired it at Osborne. The deficit isn’t falling, he declared, it’s rising.
Osborne took a pop at Labour’s general fiscal competence. Somewhere in the depths of Tory HQ a very eager fact-ferret has grubbed up a wish-list of Labour money-making schemes. These include the sale of a massive conference centre opposite the Commons. ‘It’s the only government asset that makes a profit,’ said Osborne. Their second wheeze is to offload a popular restaurant in St James’s Park frequented by arms-dealers, prostitutes and bishops. Total value £6.5m. ‘That’s 0.0005 per cent of the budget,’ Osborne crowed. ‘Their economic policy is literally out to lunch.’