It was meant to be a routine budget. Now Osborne looks like the government’s last chance
‘The Cameron project is worth saving’, a government insider said to me recently. It was a striking declaration. After ten months in government, the people on the inside are not talking about a bumpy start or a rough patch. Rather, their language suggests an existential struggle: they worry that, unless something changes, they will fail. The sense of panic that was so acute among Conservatives four years ago, when Gordon Brown seemed ready to call and win an election, has returned. And with that, a feeling that something drastic needs to be done — and that George Osborne is the man to do it.
It has become something of a tradition that, when the Cameron project is in trouble, Osborne is asked to produce a cunning plan. He managed it last time. It was his inheritance tax cut proposal which, four years ago, scared Brown into cancelling the planned election.
Osborne learned much, perhaps too much, in his years opposing Brown. One of the main lessons he’ll have taken is that budgets, if used properly, are devices that can redirect a government’s course, and blindside the opposition. Delivering a budget is one of the few occasions in the political calendar when the government has all the cards. One surprise announcement can force opponents to tear up all their plans.
The Prime Minister has hardly been playing down expectations, boasting that his Chancellor will reveal the ‘most pro-growth budget this government this country has seen for a generation’. A tall order, especially as I understand that the Chancellor will not offer any serious tax cuts. But his budget is likely to be packed with pyrotechnics — fiscal diversions, to allow his fellow ministers a little breathing space. For almost three months, Osborne has been telling them to hold back certain announcements for budget day.