… had I had a long CIF piece on the Chancellor’s debate. This was to be my closing paras:
Who do you think expressed these sentiments:
“I wish you well in your job search – I think the government can help … Inequality matters … We believe very much in the tax credit system … Bankers’ pay is completely out of kilter with the rest of the country … Banks need to be properly regulated”.
These centre-left bromides came not from Darling or Cable but Osborne. The most surreal moment was when a doctor asked which of the speakers could guarantee essential NHS services. While Darling talked vaguely about the importance of health, and Cable stuck to his ‘austerity strategy’ of bitter truths at every opportunity, it was Osborne who was most unequivocal in defending high health spending. After years of berating New Labour profligacy he has found himself defending the biggest item in Brown’s last spending review as Chancellor.
The debate was probably won by Vince Cable, who managed at times to swipe at both his rivals at once, and was clearly faced with a very pro-Vince audience. They loved his old-Labour style attack on the Conservatives wanting to reward their ‘rich backers’, and were determined to applaud a quite modest claim that “some of us did see this crisis coming”. Alistair Darling stuttered some of his best lines, and was most fluent in relaying nerdy details that were tangential to the questions being asked. At one point he responded to a student’s anxious enquiry about future job security with a tour de horizon of pharmaceutical industry and green energy. Darling has clearly learned a lot as Chancellor, but at times the quantity of information drowned the message.
However the greatest interest lay in watching Osborne – still favourite to be the next Chancellor. No-one can deny that he is clever, or that he understands his economic theory. Nor could they deny that he now speaks progressive language with greater assurance. But despite these and other advantages – how his predecessors would have loved to have attacked a Labour recession! – doubts must remain about his judgement. The National Insurance cut is the latest example of a good idea but for the wrong time. Abandoning his attacks on debt for a crowd-pleasing tax cut left him sharing the middle ground with his centre-left opponents. As a result he lost many sharply-drawn dividing lines, and any monopoly on that word “responsibility”.
A kinder verdict is that Conservative difficulties reflect a genuine tension between detoxifying their brand and a new language of austerity that has been the centrepiece of their recession strategy. I have long maintained that their call for cuts was spectacularly mistimed. Since this became clear they have oscillated between toughness on the debt and a fear of the consequent unpopularity. Tonight, this indecisive strategy seemed to leave them with the worst of both worlds.
I think the morning verdicts have crystallized around (a) Vince won it (b) Darling remains a real Labour asset (c) Osborne didn’t blow it. As well as (d) we should have more of these events. I can’t bear watching Question time: I always want to dissolve the people, elect another one. Not with this event.