That was a funny way to say sorry. Osborne kicked off his autumn statement with a Niagara of self-congratulation. He does the same thing at the budget. He said his wisdom, foresight and courage had rescued the nation from bankruptcy and set us on a golden path towards wealth, security and happiness. His glorious achievements reach every part of the UK, he went on: the tumescent north is swelling more vigorously than the shrivelled south. Birmingham creates jobs three times faster than the Home Counties. And the perkiest employment rate is to be found in the west country. He then reversed this claim and vowed to combat the ‘geographical differences that have bedevilled our economy for decades.’ A strange way to talk about your greatest success.
But this contradiction went unnoticed because Osborne had a discovery to announce. He’s found 27 billion pounds inside an old toffee wrapper at the bottom of the Treasury’s sweetie-jar. The extra money results from zero inflation and better than expected tax revenues. What a bonus. And he’s going to use it to break his own welfare cap. He didn’t quite put it like that. ‘Help’, he said, had been requested by those acclimatising themselves to the lower welfare levels. So he’d agreed to assist. The cap would ‘be met in a later part of this parliament.’ He also ditched his own tax credit cuts. That announcement too was garnished with self-praise. He’d faced two tricky alternatives, he explained: phasing in the cuts or abolishing them outright. And after a long struggle with his soul he’d come down hard on himself and taken the tougher, but kinder, course. No hint of contrition.
There was lots more good news. The cops have been ushered inside the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the health, defence and aid budgets. Women’s refugees will get £15m from ‘the tampon tax’ – his name for the 5 pc levy on sanitary towels. He hinted that he’d like to scrap this device entirely but Brussels pen-pushers won’t allow it. Talk about red tape. He upped the arts council grant claiming that it boosted the economy by a quarter of a trillion quid. Soviet commissars would have admired that trick. You value the creative industries as a whole, (£0.25 trn), and align that with the tiny nationalised sector, (£1bn) and claim that one produces the other.
Many are tipping Osborne for Downing Street, (Osborne first among them, of course). Am I alone in failing to see it? The PM has to be a tribal cheerleader, an avuncular presence at the national picnic, a party-starter or at least a songster with a hint of bonhomie and warmth. And here’s Osborne with his sunken face, his ashen jaws, his flagellant’s scowl and the general air of a Regency funeral director being told about the success of the first vaccination experiments. Jazzmen awakening from heroin comas look chirpier then the chancellor. But if Osborne thinks he’s on the way up, John McDonnell knows he’s on the way out.
The shadow chancellor responded by calling Osborne ‘economically illiterate.’ He then produced Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and read a quote about the virtues of teachers. He chucked the volume at David Cameron and it landed incongruously on the despatch box. Has that ever happened in parliament before? History’s most prolific mass-killer is cited with approval by a shadow chancellor who then urges the prime minister to consult the tyrant’s wisdom and insight. Mockery dies at such a stunt. Even derision won’t stoop to comment.
Join The Spectator’s Andrew Neil, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth on 26 November to discuss George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. Click here for more information and to book tickets.