BBC Newsnight sent a crew to North Wiltshire today, to interview voters about the budget. Gladys Pek Yue Macrae, a former Conservative Party branch chairman, said she is fed up because she expected Tory policies to be the result of a Tory majority. Instead, she said, “I find I have a socialist Chancellor. Conservatives are for small government and each individual being responsible for their own destiny. Why do we have a sugar tax? If people should not be eating sugar, then they should not eat sugar.” As her husband, Alan Macrae, put put it: “Surely Conservatism is all about freedom of choice? It’s not about the government telling you what you should and should not do.”
I was on the panel for the subsequent discussion, and Evan Davis asked about that: surely it’s nonsense that anyone could think that about George Osborne? Socialist? Really? Mad, surely? I had to disagree. Not that I think Osborne is a socialist: I’d call him a Conservative who makes a self-defeatingly large number of tactical concessions. But I certainly can see why so many Tory voters like Mrs Macrae feel the way they do.
And – here’s the thing – their views matter because people like Mr and Mrs Macrae will be choosing the next Prime Minister. The Tory leadership election will be decided by perhaps 100,000 remaining Tory members: almost half as many as Republicans who voted in the Iowa caucus. A group more likely than perhaps any other to regard Osborne as unacceptably leftwing. Any other time of the year, these people might be safely ignored or derided by commentators and strategists. But now, they are part of a golden group – perhaps 0.2 per cent of the electorate – who will decide who succeeds David Cameron.
And this unnerves even me. The Tory Party has never been less representative of the nation at large, given that its membership has halved under David Cameron. And I can certainly understand what makes them cross. At The Spectator’s budget presentation in the British Museum, I met a gentleman whose main concern was that Osborne is sacked before he implements any more of the Labour manifesto. There are, no doubt, only a tiny number of people who loathe Osborne because they think he’s a borderline socialist. But such people are disproportionately likely to belong to Conservative Party.
They do have grounds for complaint. We have a Conservative majority government and yet it proposes a £9 minimum wage, when even Ed Miliband stopped at £8. The effect of this will be to render between 60,000 and 300,000 unemployed, depending which economist you speak to. And who cares about such people, now that the Tories don’t? Osborne has now borrowed more than all previous Chancellors put together, with the exception of Darling. And he boasted, yesterday, about removing 600,000 from the higher rate of tax – next year, mind, he’s happy to let “half a million people who should never have been paying the higher rate” languish there for another year. And let’s remember that, so far, he has ensnared an almighty 1.6 million into the higher rate so far. Look at his record, compared to the restraint of other Tory Chancellors:-
The language of this budget was also divisive, and the sort of thing that would once have been regarded as too left-wing for New Labour. Big Companies bad, Small Companies good: that’s reminiscent of Ed Miliband’s theories about ‘predator’ companies versus ‘producer’ companies.
The small print of the Budget lists the charities to whom Osborne has distributed the tax raised from bank fines. So he is juxtaposing charities (yay!!) with banks (boo!). His juxtaposition of disability reforms to tax cuts was a gift to the left, perhaps to make sure he was drawing criticism from all sides of the house.
His banker bashing is relentless. You do have to ask: how much of this Budget could not have been delivered by a New Labour Chancellor? (Answer: the bits that were so left wing that Gordon Brown would have thrown them out).
Jeremy Corbyn instantly welcomed Osborne’s sugar tax. Which will, of course, disproportionally hit the poorest families – whose lives are made tough enough by the pious ‘sin taxes’ that impoverish, rather than change behaviour. And it upsets Tories like Mrs Macrae because of the philosophy that underpins it: the idea that the state ought to change the behaviour of the people (rather than vice versa). Does the Poor Man let his children drink Coke? How awful! We should tax him until he jolly well stops. Let Them Drink Smoothies! This is the attitude that infuriates many Tory members, and the philosophy that they joined the party to attack rather than espouse.
When Margaret Thatcher declared that she’d run for leader, she said she wanted to represent the party “and the philosophy upon which it is based.” What is Osborne’s philosophy? The Chancellor is very bad at explaining himself, and if enough of the Tory Party faithful suspect that his philosophy is the wrong one then he will have a bit of a problem when the 2019 leadership election comes along.