You may remember during the election that I was somewhat dubious about Labour targeting George Osborne as the Tories’ ‘weakest link’.
What you saw today was a right-wing Tory Chancellor setting out, with considerable confidence, a major package of measures that fit with his right-wing Tory view of the world. Nick Clegg may be deputy Prime Minister, but the real Number 2 in this government is Mr Osborne.
In so far as there were sops to the Liberal Democrats, they tended to be rhetorical. Progressive alliance my rump.
Osborne was fairly clear during the election campaign about what would be required to fulfil his desire to tackle the deficit, make substantial cuts and put up some taxes. What he has done very cleverly since is use the presence of the Lib Dems in government to develop political cover.
As he gave the speech, Cameron was blocked from view by Osborne at the Despatch Box. So we saw Nick Clegg in best nodding dog mode on one side of the Chancellor, and Danny Alexander constantly leaning in to Cameron for approval of the measures George was announcing.
Danny Boy should not look so worried. David Cameron likes this Budget; and likes the fact that the Lib Dems have to support it.
I thought Harriet Harman did well in her response. It is not easy to respond on your feet to the Budget. But she was right to throw back at Cameron his words on VAT being a regressive tax, right to point out that the new Office of Budget Responsibility has blown a hole in the government’s claims that the economy is worse than they expected it to be, and right to remind the Lib Dems that as with so much that was in the Queen’s Speech, they are basically now standing on their heads.
The basic argument between Tory and Labour is largely unchanged since the election. Cut the deficit now, when the recovery is fragile – or continue to support the economy precisely because of that fragility.
The arguments around that, and the considerable impact of the many specific changes announced, and the many more cuts that will flow from the big figure announcements, and disproportionatgely impact upon the poor, will define our politics for some time.
But I ended the main exchanges feeling that however much I disagree with the content of his Budget, Osborne at least has an agenda and is making sure he takes it forward, whatever the impediments seated around him, Harriet Harman responded well, and the Lib Dems are heading for big trouble, and they deserve every bit of it.
Vince Cable looked like he felt the pain of Harriet’s jibe that he had gone from national treasure to Treasury poodle. I confidently predict an entrepreneur somewhere will do Clegg as a nodding dog and we will one day see him in the back windows of cars, which is where and how he will be best remembered. And despite being surrounded by BBC journalists saying – and I agree – that George Osborne had shown the courage of his convictions, Alexander is currently looking very uncomfortable as he says he is very comfortable with the changes Osborne announced.
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