Claiming credit for things that are nothing to do with you is where trouble starts in politics. You can claim that you have abolished ‘boom and bust’, even when occasionally qualified as ‘Tory boom and bust’, but the economy will disprove you – as Gordon Brown spectacularly found out during the Global Financial Crisis. George Osborne has, of course, mimicked Brown from the outset. He has promised deficit reduction he has never yet delivered, and a rebalancing of the economy that has proved to be just so much hot air. Both of these are unnecessary, self-inflicted injuries reminiscent of Brown.
On Monday, Osborne and Bill Gates announced a fund of billions to eradicate malaria. Osborne said: ‘We need innovation, new drugs, and the most dramatic thing we need is vaccines. If we build on this momentum, we can save million of lives and chart a long-term course for eradication of this disease.’ Except he didn’t. That was Gates and Gordon Brown announcing the eradication of malaria in 2008.
Nearly eight years on it’s Osborne’s turn. He and Gates wrote on Monday: ‘When it comes to human tragedy, no creature comes close to the devastation caused by the mosquito. We both believe that a malaria-free world has to be one of the highest global health priorities.’
This was good for a quick laugh, but it is part of a pattern of behaviour. There’s the use of social media to seem innovative but to actually dig a great big hole to fall into. Who can forget the dreadful YouTube video in which Gordon Brown took personal responsibility for cleaning up MPs’ expenses? What was a matter for the Commons (the legislature) rather than the government (the executive) wrapped itself around Labour from that point onwards. Compare, but don’t contrast, George Osborne venturing onto Twitter to boast:
#Google tax bill is a victory for the action we’ve taken.I introduced Diverted Profits Tax.We now expect to see other firms pay their share
— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) January 23, 2016
A rare example of rapidly-regretted sober tweeting. For, if the credit for the tax bill goes to Osborne and the government, so too does the criticism for its derisory size too – as David Cameron found out at PMQs. Now, the Prime Minister found Corbyn easy to bat away but he was forced to own the issue. Company taxation is global, complex and long-term – not suitable for gloating soundbites.
So, some advice for George. If you are going to be a Gordon Brown tribute band you need more than just the moves. You need the personnel too. Don’t play transparently duplicitous games with your leadership rivals – just destroy them. Get yourself a Damian McBride figure – then you won’t need to spend the next few years wondering about the outcome of the leadership ballot. That will also help you avoid the regular Budget errors, from the pasty tax to the tax credits. And while you are at it, get yourself an Ed Balls too – someone has to run the Treasury while you are off playing politics around Whitehall.
The thing is, the limitation of Brown’s approach, which is so obvious from this perspective, also unravelled his premiership when he took over from Blair. Obviously, Osborne has the advantage here in that he can anticipating facing Jeremy Corbyn across the dispatch box and around the country in 2020. But it’s best not to bank on facing an unelectable opposition – far better to render them irrelevant by removing their last remaining vestiges of appeal from them. What was the most successful element of the last Budget? The announcement of the Living Wage. What does it have in common with all the Tories’ lasting successes? It comes from adopting a Labour Party policy.
Health and education are a success because Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt continued successful Labour polices. The government’s single greatest disaster is Universal Credit which is also, not by chance, their biggest home-grown policy. Tax credits, which it is replacing, are so popular that cuts in them were reversed. There is a lesson here. If George Osborne insists on being a tribute band to a Labour Prime Minister, why not make it Tony Blair. It is no coincidence that Michael Gove, the most successful of current Cabinet ministers, nicknamed Blair ‘The Master’.