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No regrets as Osborne hits weakest in quest for cuts

Chancellors are never well-loved for long; Tory chancellors tend to become as popular as a virus almost from the minute they take office.

The bolder souls among them glory in the fact. It counts as proof of ideological virtue.

George Osborne stands comfortably within this tradition. There is no suggestion that he approaches the task of cutting public spending with a heavy heart, no hint of regret for failing to shoulder the state's obligations. For this Chancellor, the idea that a government has responsibilities is, as often as not, questionable.

Mr Osborne regards most forms of social security as discretionary spending. He believes in balanced budgets and in shrinking the state. He takes a view of debt and borrowing that is, at best, simplistic. He is restrained, if he is restrained, only by political - meaning electoral - considerations.

So he tells us in a speech in Birmingham that another £25 billion will have to be cut from spending after the next General Election if the Government is to balance the books by 2018. Fully £12 billion will have to come from "welfare". Why 2018? No obvious reason. Why social security? Because Mr Osborne maintains that he will achieve his ends without tax increases.

The Chancellor tightens his corset a little further. Because pensioners are in the habit of voting, he won't tamper with "benefits" - for which recipients have paid - accounting for half of the £166bn social security budget. David Cameron has promised to "ring-fence" the NHS and schools in England and Wales. Enormous chunks of money are therefore off-limits to any (direct) assault by the Chancellor.

So, for ideological reasons, more taxes will not be demanded of the better-off. So no audit of the social and economic costs of the Osborne strategy will be tolerated. So the poorest suffer most, suffer disproportionately, and have insults added to their injuries with the incompetence and untruths of Iain Duncan Smith. All of this is defined as an exercise in "savings".

Mr Osborne is less than frank, however. How does he mean to achieve his savings? Why is he making a speech now about cuts that have been predicted since his last Autumn Statement? And why, given all the promises made since 2010, does the programme of austerity stretch ahead to 2018-19?

The Chancellor has mentioned a couple of targets. One is housing benefit for those under 25. That will hit 200,000 households with children - who have no votes - but account for less than £2bn. Mr Osborne also has his eyes on those in social housing with household incomes above £60,000. There are scarcely 20,000 of such cases. The money involved barely registers in the Treasury. So £10bn is sought and the minister making the demand won't name the likely victims.

Mr Osborne's motives in making his Birmingham speech are not hard to decipher. Once again, he is drawing Labour and Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, on to terrain of his choosing. Given that the Opposition has decided to accept the coalition's spending limits, any criticism of a brutal programme will be met with a simple challenge: "So what would you cut?" The claim that all is explained by Labour profligacy rather than a crooked banking system - for which Labour could well be blamed - goes by default.

So the Chancellor dodges the real bullet: an economy whose output on his watch is still below pre-crash levels. If Mr Osborne had been as good as his word, borrowing would be around £60bn by now, not topping £110bn this year. Austerity has not produced the kind of growth that yields tax receipts. In the absence of growth, the government goes on borrowing. Despite all the cuts, and thanks to interest charges on the money borrowed, public spending refuses to fall. The Chancellor has failed.

His fans won't have it. Despite the realities experienced daily by millions, the fundamental facts of rising prices and falling incomes, growth is proclaimed. Britain is in far better shape, so Mr Osborne's claque insists, than most advanced economies. They have the numbers to prove it.

That they do. The United Kingdom still has a way to go to get back to 2007-08 levels, but the bare figures indicate progress. Car sales have picked up; the housing market - with Government help - is moving. Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron must be tempted to invite us to rejoice. But here's a recipe for growth: over-stretched individuals borrowing thanks to artificially low interest rates while incomes fail to keep pace with inflation. What could possibly go wrong?

Mr Osborne has yet to say how far he could or would go in cutting spending. "The state" is as small as it has been since the grim years of post-war austerity. The Chancellor indicates that this is fine by him, that small can never be small enough where social security is concerned. He seeks the honour, as he sees it, of putting an end to the welfare state. But in its place he offers only the prospect of debt bondage, knowing full well that interest rates will rise soon enough.

Will this play havoc with the finances of a Scottish Government averse to Mr Osborne's philosophy? Why should he care about that? It suits his purpose. Will it benefit only those who profit from the voodoo of compound interest? The Chancellor is devoted to the cause of such institutions and individuals. In his world, they are "the economy".

You could ask a couple of questions. One would be: what's Mr Osborne's rush? When did the year 2018 acquire a special aura? Perhaps the Chancellor is tired of having been so wrong so often in his predictions. It remains the case that by reducing government as an economic actor to the role of bit player, even while borrowing more than ever, he is doing nothing for growth. He regards it as a secondary issue when poor folk are available to bear every burden.

But what of debt and borrowing? Tories proceed from the belief that the voting public will always mistake the economics of government for the household variety. Debt is bad, despite the fact that Britain has rarely been in the black over the course of decades. Borrowing is therefore worse, even if governments around the world indulge in the filthy habit every day of the week. Small details - from whom is the money borrowed? - are forgotten.

Only 30% of Britain's debt is held overseas. Those economists who still retain their wits will tell you this is no bad thing. We in no sense resemble Greece and never have. In reality, 70% of the borrowings that leave Mr Osborne with a hefty interest rate bill and inspire him to make war on the poor are owned by UK plc itself. Bonds, gilts and Treasury bills are held by our very own "financial institutions".

You might remember them. We bailed some of them out. We have since handed them £375bn in electronic quantitative easing "money". Now the Chancellor puts his boot on the necks of the most vulnerable to ensure that institutions get their interest payments. And some call this rational.

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