George Osborne’s budget shows he is planning an early election


The morning after the chancellor sits down to cheers is usually the moment when hidden horrors tumble from out of the red box. But the chief sense I have absorbed from George Osborne’s smallprint thus far is not wickedness, but weirdness. The plan is for a pretty significant loosening of the purse strings, reaching nearly £8bn by the middle of this parliament, and then a seriously sharp contraction – of £14bn – in the immediate run-up to the general election. Vague future cuts would become concrete and specific, and higher taxes would start to bite just before the British public were due to have the scheduled say on their government.

I use the word “scheduled” advisedly, because this bizarre upending of the regular rules of the political cycle begins to make sense only if the chancellor had in mind a rather earlier date with the voters. Let us imagine, for example, that he envisaged a new Conservative leader taking over from David Cameron – who has already promised to go before polling day – some time about 2017, and then doing what Gordon Brown failed to do in 2007, and heading to the country with a confident cry that a new leader required a new mandate.

Even before the budget, there were reasons to imagine that this might be the plan. There is a happy historical precedent – Anthony Eden went to the country after taking over from the ailing Winston Churchill in 1955, and increased his majority – as well as the unhappy contemporary case of Brown bottling it. The opposition is currently hopelessly divided, with Labour’s radical Corbynite membership and a middle of the road parliamentary party so preoccupied with fighting each other that the Conservatives might enjoy a clear run in a national race. Labour’s struggle is unlikely to be settled decisively in the next year or two, but after that things get harder to call, and the opposition could potentially become more of a threat.

Cut, run and win early, and the new prime minister could bring in a new chancellor to quietly rewrite the ludicrous surplus law, and with it obviate the claimed need for the tax rises and the extra cuts. The law’s purpose is purely political – outright surpluses are not required to manage down the debt – and with Labour defeated for a third time, the political imperative would pass.

Indeed, the only reason – on the face of it a powerful reason – why there isn’t more speculation about an early poll is the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2010. It specifies in statute that the next election will be held in May 2020. There are, however, two get-out clauses. If two-thirds of MPs vote to dissolve parliament, an election is triggered. The Conservatives could not get there on their own, but they may be able to taunt opposition members into helping them. Running from the voters would be a terrible look for a Labour party, which would also have to explain to its supporters that they would have to put up with the Tories for longer while they sorted themselves out. But turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and faced with a crushing government poll lead, it is possible that opposition MPs would become entirely unembarrassable.

Even then, however, an election could still be engineered, thanks to the second get-out clause, which kicks in if no new government emerges a fortnight after the government loses the confidence of the Commons. Staging a no confidence vote in itself may be an unusual thing for a government to do, but stranger things have happened in politics. Twice in modern Germany history, constructive votes of confidence have been used to cut notionally fixed government terms short.

Cutting and running while avoiding the law could look inelegant, but the new Tory leader would have one handy excuse written into the act itself, because the act already requires whoever is prime minister in 2020 to undertake a review. Circumventing the statute could also be rationalised by pointing out that the original need was for stability to deal with the outsize deficit of 2010, an emergency which a new leader could claim had passed.

Osborne is often held up by his admirers as an arch strategist. But could he really be arranging his budget around such elaborate scheming? For sure, if he is plotting, he is having to chart a way around several important unknowns. The first and most urgent of which is whether he and Cameron will survive the coming referendum. A second is whether or not the new Tory leader, who would potentially benefit from such tactical judgments, will be Osborne himself or somebody else entirely.

To play games in the face of such uncertainties would be strange indeed. But not, perhaps, quite as strange as planning to save up all the economic pain to just before polling day.

[Source:- Gurdian]