Bernard Ingham: Come on, Mr Osborne, it’s time to show your backbone

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Today Chancellor George Osborne will intervene extensively, and in detail , in the economy to encourage growth with responsibility. Such is the modern state of Budget secrecy – or more accurately incontinence – that until 2010 it used to be dead easy to guess how the Chancellor would intervene.

Normally, the Treasury overplayed in advance the nasty medicine so that it did not seem too awful on the day and underplayed the goodies so that by tonight the Chancellor would look like Lady Bountiful.

Now Budgets in these coalition days are a public negotiation of its contents with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats vying for parentage of measures that play up the Lib Dems’ social conscience and the Tories’ hard-headed practicality.

Amid all this razzamatazz, the Chancellor has only one thing to fear: appearing to go soft on the central objective of bringing the nation’s books into balance. He will qualify as a genius if tonight the Lib Dems are merely chuntering and he is seen to have been firm of purpose.

Lady Bountiful, I trust, has been banished to the nether regions. We cannot afford her.

Which brings me to the point of Budgets. They should be to tune the operation of the economy for the greater good. This, as I say, involves extensive intervention in its operation. And in a fair and objective world that should put a sock in the endless moaning from Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. Cable is dead keen on government intervention. Indeed, he is so mad keen that he has given Lord Heseltine houseroom in his department. You will recall that Tarzan, in his post-Thatcher phase of Ministerial life, promised to intervene morning, noon and night.

I trust that Tory MPs are clamouring for David Cameron to shift not just Cable but also Heseltine out of the Business department. Now that the Labour Party has agreed we need fiscal discipline – it used to be called housewifely economics – Cable has been arguing that the real issue is how active the Government should be in promoting economic recovery.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. It is utterly ludicrous to suggest that on the one hand British politics is populated by laissez faire Tories who would not lift a finger to help the economy grow and the Cables, Balls and Heseltines of this world who can scarcely stop themselves applying fertiliser. From time immemorial governments have intervened. Dammit, the infant Jesus was born of Joseph and Mary en route to being taxed.

Why, I have even intervened myself. In the aftermath of the 1973-74 oil crisis I helped to introduce incentive schemes to try to get individuals and businesses to save energy. I wish I could say they were worth the candle. Government intervention in the economy is so routine as to be unremarkable – or it would be if it could be seen to be generally beneficial. Instead, we have a whole catalogue of post-war disasters from ground nuts to Concorde, which was beautiful to behold but excruciatingly expensive to run. This very day we as consumers are saddled with another example – an entirely idiotic, expensive and dangerous energy policy based on wind power, devised by Labour and enthusiastically pursued by the coalition.

After all this and the nationalised industries, which always struck me as producers’ ramps, the Cables, Balls and Heseltines of this world must have a screw or two loose if, as they apparently do, they think governments can pick winners and run things better.

This is not to say that privatisation has been an unqualified improvement but that could be because we are utterly useless at regulating anything – witness the financial services industry. Nearly five years after the event, the Chancellor is still preoccupied with clearing up the mess. As we await his further intervention, let us be clear about two things. First, the choice in this country – or any country – is not between active or passive, light touch or heavy-handed government.

It is between strong and weak government – between government strong to defend the realm, the currency, the weak and law and order and government bereft of purpose and backbone. In my experience, it often takes a lot of political backbone to stop governments from meddling.

Second, the choice is not whether the Government is interventionist per se but whether it knows when and how to intervene and then gets on with it. Let us pray George Osborne today knows how and is allowed to get on with helping us work Britain back into the black.