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Austerity Osborne takes up mantle left by Cripps

It took me a while to figure out what the Chancellor evoked as he delivered his Budget speech yesterday afternoon.

leading THE WAY: Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, with his Treasury team, prepares to face the Commons with his Budget statement.  Picture: Reuters
leading THE WAY: Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, with his Treasury team, prepares to face the Commons with his Budget statement. Picture: Reuters

Finally, after a lot of rhetorical austerity and sub-Thatcherite stuff about living within one's means, it came to me: George Osborne is the 21st-century reincarnation of Sir Stafford Cripps.

Sir Stafford, of course, was Clement Attlee's man at the Treasury in the late 1940s. Nicknamed 'Austerity Cripps' as a consequence of his tight grip on public spending, he was - rather like Osborne - more of a moralist than an economist. Cripps believed in dietary as well as fiscal austerity (he was a vegetarian); similarly, his successor had clearly shed weight via the 5:2 diet favoured by Alex Salmond.

So although Austerity Osborne kicked off with good news he took care to temper it with gloom. 'We're putting Britain right,' he told MPs, 'but the job is far from done. Our country still borrows too much.' He had never shied away, added the Chancellor, from 'telling the British people about the difficult decisions we face.' Further cuts were dispensed with in a single, misleadingly anodyne sentence: 'in addition to the cuts this year and next, there will be cuts in the next Parliament too'.

There was the usual tacit acknowledgement that his own deficit reduction targets continue to elude him, but all that was glossed over with undeniably positive figures, indeed good news his opponents - both Labour and Nationalist - said wouldn't happen: growth of 2.7% in 2014 and, usefully, the biggest upward revision between Budgets of the last three decades. The UK was now the fastest growing economy in the world, and so on.

No surplus, however, until at least 2018/19, which explained why Austerity Osborne continued to pursue Plan B by stealth: more help for exporters, a doubling of investment allowances and a reduction in energy bills for industry. When it came to welfare the Chancellor darkened his tone. Britain, he said, should be 'proud' of having a system that helped 'those most in need' but 'never again' should its costs be allowed to 'spiral out of control'.

It was all intensely political, but then that is unavoidable Budget territory. There was minimal noise from the Labour benches for there was little in the Chancellor's statement they could credibly oppose - free childcare for working families, a surprise boost to pensions, more generous ISA terms - what precisely could Mr Balls shout down? Predictably, the SNP focused on austerity in the absence of having anything more constructive to say, for it continues to luxuriate in supporting deficit reduction but not 'cuts'.

Austerity Osborne acknowledged that strange land to the north called Scotland, although he almost messed it up by referring to 'Scottish' rather than 'Scotch' Whisky ('a great British success story'), which was to benefit from frozen spirit duty. Other carrots included a reduction in Air Passenger Duty (not its devolution, as trailed last week) while he wielded the usual stick: 'The Scottish economy is doing well,' was his message, don't let the Nationalists wreck it by relying on 'precarious' tax revenue from what the Chancellor called a 'mature basin'.

Otherwise Austerity Osborne's language evoked the England, or rather Britain, of the Cripps era. A new pound coin, he said, would 'blend' the security features of the future with 'inspiration from our past' (it looks like the old thruppenny bit); he talked of promoting the 'best of British values' (how, I wonder, do they differ from 'Scottish values'?), while announcing £20 million to repair cathedrals and celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. But the Chancellor also acknowledged that Britain could be less than great, with funding for an Alan Turing Institute to honour a code-breaker 'persecuted for his sexuality by the country he helped save'.

At points it all sounded a bit Old Labour. The rich, argued the Chancellor, were bearing the brunt of austerity; bingo duty was cut (the pasty tax fiasco will take a while to live down), while he even spoke of 'a Britain that makes things again'. One could almost imagine the late Tony Benn - who succeeded Cripps in Bristol South-East - beaming benignly.

Austerity Osborne naturally had two electoral sights in mind, this September's referendum and next year's general election and, broadly speaking, his fifth Budget was a success, containing much to silence his opponents, enough to keep the LibDems happy and, of course, a sweetener for Tory voters flirting with Ukip.

The Chancellor didn't even utter the word 'austerity', but then that would have been too obvious.

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