George Osborne has turned his back on ‘Project Fear’ after finally breaking his Brexit silence. The aim of his speech this morning was all about reassuring the financial markets before they opened. To help him do that he reeled off a couple of sound bites about how Britain was open for business, how it ‘will not be plain sailing’ but that it was a good job we’d ‘fixed the roof’. The Chancellor also said that whilst this ‘is not the outcome I wanted or that I threw everything into campaigning for’, ‘the people have spoken’ and we must all accept that result. But what was more interesting was what wasn’t mentioned.
In the run-up to the referendum, Osborne was one of the key cheerleaders for ‘Project Fear’ in warning of the consequences of what would happen if Britain voted ‘Out’. The Chancellor told us that Brexit would trigger a ‘DIY recession’. He also said that such a recession would last for a year and there would be 820,000 fewer jobs than if we voted ‘In’.
He didn’t wholly change his tune on those warnings, saying: ‘I don’t resile from any of the concerns I expressed during the campaign’. But then again, crucially, he didn’t repeat any of those warnings either. His recession prediction was substituted for the euphemism that there would be an ‘adjustment’ in the economy. And where was the punishment budget? Osborne didn’t mention it in his speech but he was asked about it repeatedly during a brief and terse round of questions. The Chancellor said there ‘will have to be action’ to deal with Brexit. But he did his best to kick the budget football away for the time being by emphasising the role of the new Prime Minister in what comes next. He also seemed to indicate that we won’t see Article 50 being triggered until the autumn, despite what some European leaders have said about the need for Britain to do so immediately.
And what about Osborne’s own future? Unlike the Prime Minister, he didn’t give anything specific away. Instead, on the ‘questions about the future’, he told us that he will answer those issues in the coming days. He went on to add: ‘I take a simple view of life: it’s my country and I intend to fulfil my duties to my country’. This speech couldn’t have been more different from the last time the Chancellor appeared at the Treasury podium. But whether Osborne can successfully distance himself from some of the lurid warnings about life in a post-Brexit Britain seems unlikely if this morning’s performance is anything to go on.