NOW we know it. George Osborne is ‘sorry’ that his Cabinet colleague Iain Duncan Smith resigned over welfare policy – but he cannot bring himself to utter the same word when challenged to apologise for the unnecessary anguish that his blundering Budget caused to disabled people.
I’m afraid it was summed up by the picture of the Chancellor, back to his pipsqueak worst, laughing with Michael Gove on the front bench of the Commons while his opposite number sought an apology of sorts. One word – sorry – would have sufficed.
It deserves to haunt Mr Osborne for the rest of his smug career because it revealed a ‘posh boy’ arrogance and vindictive cruel streak that is unacceptable. It said just as much as the crowd’s derision at the London Paralympics when Mr Osborne was booed at a medal ceremony following the omnishambles Budget of 2012.
Some context. While last week’s Budget was being signed off, including those restrictions on Personal Independent Payments (PIP) which proved too much for Mr Duncan Smith, the Chancellor was on a PR charm offensive – presumably to prop up his faltering ratings rather than the under-performing economy.
It included transport announcements, released by the Treasury under a “no approach embargo” which precluded the media from seeking any response which might have challenged these recycled announcements.
There then followed Mr Osborne’s customary appearance in a hi-vis jacket and hard hat to inspect building work on London’s Crossrail scheme before the Treasury released details, under embargo until midnight on Budget day, about proposals to turn every primary and secondary school into an academy.
After the Budget, the Chancellor ventured North. Normally this should be welcome – a senior politician coming to Yorkshire to listen to local concerns – but the reality was very different.
This, after all, was supposed to be a Budget for “the next generation” but I’m afraid pupils at St Benedict’s School, Garforth, were nothing more than props so Mr Osborne could smile cheesily at the cameras before heading to Bradford to meet – for presentation purposes – headteacher Nick Weller who has been tasked with transforming schools in the North.
Why does this matter? The Chancellor’s blatant self-promotion could not have been in greater contrast to his disappearing act once Mr Duncan Smith had resigned and accused Mr Osborne of hypocrisy over his oft-repeated “we are all in this together” mantra.
This was self-evident on Monday when the aforementioned Mr McDonnell tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the Chancellor to clarify the Government’s position on PIP payments to the disabled – and how the £4bn ‘black hole’ in the Budget was going to be filled.
What happened? Not for the first time, a cowardly Mr Osborne played his ‘Sorry I haven’t a clue’ card and sent his ever faithful junior minister David Gauke to the Commons to answer Labour’s questions.
If the Financial Secretary to the Treasury had anything about him, he would have produced a sick note of his own – he’s clearly believes such sycophancy is the best way to achieve preferment.
It got no better when Stephen Crabb, the new Work and Pensions Secretary (and another Osborne stooge), told MPs that the disabled would be spared another round of cuts.
While he was acknowledging that the Government’s increased spending can’t keep pace with the number of new disability claimants, the Treasury suggested that the cuts could be implemented later in the Parliament before The Times newspaper was given the heads-up on Mr Osborne’s intended comments to MPs the following day – a clear breach of Commons protocol.
Yet, when Mr Osborne did deign to make a public appearance a full three-and-a-half long days after Mr Duncan Smith resigned, his condescension was truly contemptible and only masked by the awful events unfolding in Brussels.
He began by saying that he was “sorry” that his colleague had quit on such a point of principle, but this was out of political necessity and the need to appease the Eurosceptics on the fractious Tory backbenchers.
However, when challenged by Chris Leslie, the former Shadow Chancellor, to say ‘sorry’ to the disabled, Mr Osborne retorted: “Where is the apology from the Labour party for the things that they got wrong?”
Yes, Labour does have a lot to answer for, but Mr Osborne has now been Chancellor for six years and every forecast on growth – and the eradication of the deficit – has been missed by such wide margins that it will now be impossible to balance the books without another combination of unplanned tax rises and spending cuts. No wonder all questions about the ‘black hole’ were deferred until the Autumn Statement – he has run out of wriggle room.
Given this, it must surely be dawning on David Cameron that he might need to sacrifice his closest colleague and confidante in order to save his own reputation – indeed Mr Osborne now finds himself on the same side of the argument as Newcastle FC owner Mike Ashley who is refusing to attend a Parliamentary hearing to discuss claims of slave labour at its Sports Direct empire.
Mr Cameron’s political, economic and moral authority is unravelling that rapidly, not least because the Opposition’s lack of credibility is fuelling a culture of complacency inside Downing Street which led to the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Cabinet, with one honourable exception, sanctioning this car crash Budget.
For, if Mr Osborne cannot spot the anguish that will be caused by penalising disabled people while simultaneously cutting taxes for the wealthy and allowing multi-nationals like Google to run rings around HMRC, he does not deserve to hold high office.
And, if he can’t even bring himself to say ‘sorry’ to the most important people of all in this sorry saga, those incapacitated through no fault of their own, it’s even more reason for this country to be spared an apology of an ungracious Chancellor.
After all, the most important test of any civilised society is how it treats the most vulnerable – and George Osborne has just failed by revealing his true colours for all to see.