A year ago, George Osborne was giving voters a glimpse of the sunny uplands that they could expect from life under a Tory government. At the time, few believed that there would be a Tory majority after the election, but here we are at the 2016 Budget with the Chancellor still in weatherman mode, but now warning that the ‘storm clouds are gathering again’ over the economy. Osborne will say today that ‘in this Budget we choose the long term’ and that this government will ‘put the next generation first’.
The Chancellor would have had to change his weather metaphors in post-election economic statements anyway, because every Budget right before an election is a nakedly political one. But he is having to prime voters for some rough weather ahead that he wasn’t banking on, and justify further cuts.
However, the overnight announcement shows us how Osborne wants to frame this whole Budget, which is as one that invests in the future even when there are storm clouds or headwinds or any other inconvenient economic weather problems to face. The Chancellor is announcing a £1.5bn extension of the school day, with additional lessons and activities in an end to the ‘Victorian’ school day finish 3.30pm. Osborne will argue that this will help push British schools up the international league tables. There is, though, only enough money for a quarter of state secondary schools to extend their hours. The Chancellor will also confirm that all schools will be forced to convert to academy status by 2022, which means an end to local authority involvement in education.
Both announcements show a determination from the government to get on with serious reforms that will provoke great opposition in the educational establishment. From Osborne’s personal point of view, the announcements are also a good way of signalling that he is a Chancellor who believes in social justice and opportunities – something he needs to give more of a clear sense of as he approaches his leadership bid – even when he has to make tough decisions.