In 1994 in a brilliant piece of conference oratory,Tory Deputy PM Michael Heseltine was describing a complicated speech on economics that had been made by Gordon Brown. It turned out it had been written by his researcher Ed Balls. So Hezza was able to tell the conference the speech wasn’t Brown’s it was Balls.
The Autumn Statement was meant to see George Osborne discredited for having to come to the Commons confessing he’s missed his targets for growth, borrowing and debt reduction. He had to do all those things and the country remains in a dire state. But politics is often about mood and presentation.
With a string of announcements to help business, scrapping petrol price increases and measures on tax avoidance, Osborne gave a strong performance in a dire situation. Ed Balls meanwhile was left floundering. An uncertain performance in the Commons will be quickly forgotten. It will be less easy for the Shadow Chancellor and his party to respond to the measures proposed.
How for instance will Labour vote on the tiny 1% increase in benefits? Will Labour re-examine its critic of the Coalition that it is cutting too far and too fast whilst there is still political mileage in the claim that Labour got us into this mess? The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is a case in point. The refurbishment of our schools and hospitals was long overdue but it was an expensive way to do it and the Chancellor’s PFI Mark 2 should ensure that the public purse benefits a bit more in the future.
There were a number of measures to help the economy in the North. We are shortly to see the plans for extending high speed rail to Manchester and Leeds. Salford is to get ultra fast broadband. Local Enterprise Partnerships are at last going to get some real money to play with. From 2015 they will be able to bid for a single pot of money covering local transport,housing and skills. More money is being poured into the Regional Growth Fund although it has been weakened by resignations and complaints of slow delivery. The new business bank is to have a billion pounds set aside for SME’s.
Finally back to the politics of the Autumn Statement. It is quite possible the UK will lose its AAA rating soon but leading economic commentators like Gillian Tett of the Financial Times and Robert Choate of the Office for Budget Responsibility seem relaxed about that. They claim investors have already factored the downgrade into their calculations. They also argue that most countries are struggling at the moment and the UK won’t be that disadvantaged.
Nevertheless the loss of our AAA status would be a blow to the Chancellor who must be hoping his package doesn’t unravel in the run up to Christmas. Memories of the aftermath of the Budget with rows over pasty tax and charities were clearly on the mind of key Coalition Ministers in the run up to the Autumn Statement. The senior Lib Dem Ministers involved in this process, leader Nick Clegg and Chief Secretary Danny Alexander are determined to see the economic strategy through and are working effectively with their Tory counterparts.
That reassures the markets, but its a very different picture up North. I was talking last week to a senior ex Lib Dem councillor who gained office when the Lib Dems first started to make an impact on northern councils. He has seen all that swept away. His bitterness was tangible. The price for the Lib Dems signing up to this budget reduction strategy is high.
May I wish you as happy a Christmas as austerity will allow.