Bernard Ingham: The last temptation of George – can the Chancellor resist?

George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street before heading to the House of Commons
George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street before heading to the House of Commons
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MARK this day well. Chancellor George Osborne will never know a more important one in his political career. By his Budget shall ye know him.

He has recognised the demands and temptations of a general election in seven weeks’ time by promising “no give-aways or gimmicks”. We shall see.

Circumstances require him progressively to reduce public expenditure over the next five years if he is to put Britain back in the black and start slashing the £1.4 trillion of accumulated public debt to make Britain a more confident and secure society.

Deep cuts are still necessary, even if the UK has the fastest growing economy in the West – growth he needs to maintain to generate the taxes to help balance the nation’s books.

On the other hand, Britain must, along with the rest of the free world, demonstrate its readiness to defend its – yes, Christian – way of life in the face of expansionist threats from Vladimir Putin and the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East. I fear the risks are under-estimated.

Continuing to spend two per cent of the nation’s GDP on defence is seen as the minimum required to show the necessary national commitment and rally the backsliders across Europe.

At the same time, there are substantial lobbies for more spending on the NHS and education and, of course, 0.7 per cent of GDP annually on overseas aid.

Osborne’s election opponents are to a party seductively inclined to be more leisurely over reducing the budget deficit of at least £75bn, assuming they take it seriously at all.

Most of them think defence spending is a waste of cash and would either cut or abolish it or scrap the nuclear deterrent. The Chancellor’s own party is also deeply split on overseas aid.

As for the NHS and education, the issue is clouded by the pressures imposed on both by Labour’s 13 years of uncontrolled immigration. The Chancellor will thus tend to be judged by whether he allocates ever more money to them.

Yet it is perfectly clear that improving their performance depends not 
primarily on cash but on reforming their systems.

As people fall ill seven days a week and 24 hours each day, the NHS had better man itself properly to cope instead of leaving GPs on a five-day week.

Similarly, it is not a blind bit of good educationalists seeking pots of gold for schools when they are not producing youngsters ready for the world of work. Managers of both must raise their game and accept competition.

All this shows you that Chancellor Osborne is not going to be able to cross the electorate’s palm with silver.

By the same token, it demonstrates what a formidable task he has when not one of his opponents – with the exception of some members of the UK Independence Party – remotely shares his philosophy.

This brings me back to the temptation of George.

If his Budget is described as an election give-away in tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, he will have cashed in his reputation with taxpayers’ money.

The nation can no more afford that than can his career.

The bald truth is that there is no room in a responsible 2015 Budget for sops and sleights of hand, even with a rising economic tempo. The idea of a Tory long-term economic plan will collapse if indulgence is seen to outweigh austerity.

Faced with the economic ideas – or lack of them – among his opponents, there is an overriding need for the Chancellor to demonstrate that he at least intends to build on the basis of the last five years to create the wealth for a medium-term improvement in our prosperity while signalling our resolve in the face of the two major threats to the peace of the world.

Responsible citizens will be heartened if tomorrow the Budget is described 
as “a clever balance” or one of those “steady as you go” affairs – and is still seen like that next week after the detail has been raked over.

I shall feel even better if it attracts the headline: “The good ship Austerity (skipper George Osborne) sails on”. Even more encouraging would be the accolade: “Austerity with Arms – the resolute Budget”.

The outcome of the forthcoming election is as opaque as its critical nature is clear. The more opaque it is the greater the temptation at the Treasury.

The Chancellor has the chance to emerge today as a statesman with a 
nerve and purpose that will carry him 
far – or to blow it.

By his Budget shall ye know him.