We are often told that George Osborne is the most politically-minded chancellor of recent times. Regardless of the fact that there is some pretty stiff competition for that title (Gordon Brown for example), one thing that the current occupier of number 11 certainly understands more than most of his immediate predecessors, is the value of the theatrical in politics.
The Autumn Statement is a case in point. He has taken this formerly minor event – akin to a trading update or interim statement - and made it into a major political occasion, a ratings-grabbing episode of the George Osborne Show to rival that of the Budget itself.
The big speech is previewed for weeks by an eager press. It doesn’t matter that the meat of his announcements is well known in advance. All that coverage – good, bad or indifferent – helps to build the anticipation, ensuring a satisfactory sense of dramatic release when he finally gets to his feet in the Commons.
Besides, like any good West End thesp, he keeps a titbit of two of fresh material up his sleeve – the famed ‘Rabbit out of the Hat’ – and gets in a few nicely-scripted ad-lib digs at the opposition too, to keep his audience on the government benches guffawing and awake.
He even changed the name – it used to be called the Pre Budget Report, remember? But with a monicker like that it was only ever going to be a subsidiary, never the main event.
So the Autumn Statement it became, and a masterclass in branding and presentation to boot. But the truth is that behind all the glitz and pzazz, what can actually be achieved is pretty limited. We know that his ambition is to create a much smaller state, and to do it via major cuts in spending.
The trouble here is that he’s committed to protect the NHS, education, defence, overseas aid – 75% of departmental spending in fact. Room for manoeuvre is tight.
This leads in turn to perverse outcomes – you can only cut what you haven’t protected, so the Police, justice and local government, are at risk of getting it in the neck. Despite the awkward fact that cutting 30% of a budget that accounts for only 5% of total spending is much less effective than cutting 5% of one that accounts for 30% of the total, and may also damage services that voters like.
We know also that he wants to up spending on infrastructure, now including a massive new £7bn programme to build 400,000 starter homes. Laudable aims both, but where is the evidence that this can actually be done, at least at the pace his targets require?
The government fund to provide £40bn of loan guarantees to infrastructure projects of ‘national significance’ – launched with some fanfare three years ago – has fallen £36bn short of its target. It has underwritten such nationally significant projects as the installation of energy-saving lightbulbs in 150 carparks. Meanwhile the row over cash for the vital electrification of major rail routes goes on.
And who is going to build all those starter homes? Where are all the brickies, chippies and sparks going to come from? Modular housing has great potential but it would be a brave developer who risked their shirt on selling pre-built pods to the bricks’n’mortar obsessed British housebuyer right now.
What’s needed is a root-and-branch review of public spending. What is the state for, and how much of the burden should be borne by the taxpayer and the private sector respectively. But that kind of thing is much too hard – and takes much too long – for a man of Osborne’s ambition to get involved in.
So what we get instead is another opportunity to kick back and enjoy the show. Let’s hope it’s a good one.