IF you’re of a weak disposition, it was probably best to look away before George Osborne took to his feet.
Growth forecasts down, borrowing projections up and unemployment expected to carry on climbing – hardly the backdrop a Chancellor relishes when delivering key financial statements.
But Mr Osborne is made of strong stuff and spelt out he was not about to be a “quack doctor selling a miracle cure”. The nation must hope the Chancellor’s medicine – or should that be Dr Osborne? – proves to be a cure nevertheless because, in parts, the diagnosis and proposed remedies are not particularly palatable.
In the House of Commons, MPs arrived early to reserve their seats, just like patients waiting to see their GP. Or at least, some of them were eager to hear Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement while others – like East Yorkshire MP Greg Knight – took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that most of its contents seemed to have been reported in the media already.
He may well have a point when he complained: “I do not know why the Chancellor is making a statement to Parliament today. Most of it has already been leaked.”
Such are the turbulent times around the globe that any hopes of turning the statement – whether leaked beforehand or not – into less of a mini-Budget had to be put on hold.
There is little love for the Speaker on the Tory benches, but twice early on he rose to his feet to demand quiet so Mr Osborne could be heard. MPs unable to secure a seat on the green benches flooded the gallery above to secure a good view.
Sitting opposite Mr Osborne, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was on his best behaviour. There was no sign of the flattened palm – signifying what he describes as a flatlining economy – which has come to be his salute in recent weeks. Instead, he settled for a little gentle barracking from time to time as his counterpart painted a gloomy picture.
Mr Osborne took the tried and trusted tactic of getting the bad news out of the way early on – the grim forecasts, plans to bring forward moves to increase the pension age to 67, another two years of pay restraint for the public sector, a squeeze on tax credits and two more years of spending cuts up to 2017.
There was plenty in there to bolster Labour’s charge that “it’s hurting but it isn’t working” and there were occasional gasps from the opposition benches, not least at the prospect of an end to the system of national pay bargaining which some MPs and unions claim would lead to northern workers losing out. A politician as political as Mr Osborne will have been fully aware of the fight that he will face over this notion.
But yesterday he had a trick that meant few of even his staunchest critics could leave the Chamber without grudging appreciation.
Enter the National Infrastructure Plan. The gleaming red book includes 500 schemes which the Government wants completed over the coming years to stimulate much-needed growth, with 35 new ones for Mr Osborne to announce.
MPs were taken around the country as he blurted out scheme after scheme receiving the green light. To the delight of business leaders, Mr Osborne has come to realise putting his faith in roads, railways and digital infrastructure might be just about his best hope of creating jobs and shocking the economy back into life.
Tory MPs Graham Stuart and Andrew Percy beamed at the foot of the Chamber as he confirmed the £150m writing down of the Humber Bridge debt, allowing tolls to be cut in half after a vocal campaign. There were Enterprise Zones here, an extra £1bn for the oversubscribed Regional Growth Fund there, millions of pounds for housing and science projects and a business-friendly package of measures too as Mr Osborne showed his hand.
What relief there was for hard-pressed families and workers – alongside the doubling of free childcare places and a youth employment drive – was saved to the end in the form of cancelling January’s 3p fuel duty hike and limiting rail fare increases, but there was little final flourish.
But Mr Osborne’s problem may be that his Autumn Statement could be the easy part of the task. Announcing a raft of building schemes is all very well, but delivering them quickly enough to make a difference is another thing.
Can the Government now deliver the planning improvements that will allow welcome transport schemes to go ahead within months, rather than languishing on the drawing board for years, doing little to fuel a recovery?
More money for the much criticised Regional Growth Fund will be widely welcomed by business leaders, but many of the projects approved more than six months ago in the first round of funding are still waiting for the money to flow through. Can they be delivered?
How many of the schools will be given the hope of expansion or new buildings are the “shovel ready” type which Ministers desperately need so work can get underway within weeks?
Will the package of incentives for business be able to help small firms flourish and enable a recovery or be undermined by restrictions which have limited the impact of the National Insurance holiday that was designed to help regions bearing the brunt of public spending cuts? And will the £40bn programme of credit easing finally see money flowing through to businesses who complain they are still being frozen out by the banks?
The cards that will determine the future of the UK economy may not all lie in the Chancellor’s hands thanks to the impact of the eurozone crisis, but yesterday he played those which do.
Now he must deliver on the policies and prove that his tough medicine is the right prognosis. If not, it will take more than a sticking plaster to treat a haemorrhaging economy.
• Jonathan Reed is the Yorkshire Post’s political editor