Peter Hoskin

Osborne and Cooper’s knockabout

Osborne and Cooper's knockabout
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Far more heat than light generated by this afternoon's urgent question on welfare spending – but a telling spectacle nonetheless. The question had been put forward by a dissenting Lib Dem voice, Bob Russell, and it was up to George Osborne to answer it. He did so with sweeping observations, and attacks on Labour, rather than specifics. And so we never really got into the small print of those £4 billion extra benefit cuts, but Osborne did wonder why Labour have never apologised for "leaving the country with the worst public finances in its history." It was knockabout stuff.  

This is not to say that Osborne was ineffective. In party political terms, he had a message – and he pushed it as far as he could. After Yvette Cooper's punchy set of questions, the chancellor countered, "Where are [Labour's] numbers? Where are their ideas? If they want to engage with us, then they need some plans of their own." Referring to Labour's absent leadership candidates, he added, "Instead of talking about the national interest, they're out courting vested interests." This wasn't just 45 minutes in the Commons, but a freehand sketch of the attacks and counterattacks we can expect to see over the next few months.

The most noteworthy moment of the debate was also its quietest. Andrew Tyrie, the keen chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, rightly pointed out that the Budget's distributional graphs only account for a narrow range of government policies – so is the Treasury working towards a more complete picture of the "progressiveness" of the Spending Review? And, in response, Osborne agreed that the current Treasury model "isn't perfect," and that he is working to finesse it – although he "can't promise anything".

This may seem a rather dull, inconclusive exchange. But, as I suggested earlier, if the government hopes to triumph in the battle over cuts, then it needs to place less emphasis upon the kinds of analyses which have since seen it labelled as "regressive" – and more on a wider idea of what does and doesn't help the poor. By downplaying the Treasury's graphs, Osborne is already expanding his armoury.