Peter Hoskin

Osborne should avoid Brown-style rhetoric on cuts

Osborne should avoid Brown-style rhetoric on cuts
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Right, I know I keep banging on about Osborne's speech, but - Alan Duncan's loose lips aside - it's certainly the topic du jour in Westminster.  Yesterday evening, I noted a couple of qualms I had with what I thought was - on the whole - an important and effective address.  Today, I've got another concern to add to the pile; one prompted by Osborne's article in the Times.

The headline to that article reads thus: "The new dividing line: radical reform or cuts".  And the sub-head runs: "Sceptics argue that reform is a luxury we cannot afford.  Without it, money for schools and health will inevitably be slashed."  Now, there are some major problems with that argument.  For starters, as the Tories have admitted constantly, the next government will have to cut public spending.  Reform isn't separate from that task: it's a method by which savings can be made (even if only from the medium-term onwards), so that overall expenditure can be reduced.  It's the process behind the "more for less" sentiment.  So there isn't really a "dividing line" between "radical reform" and "cuts".  To indicate that there is - and that "cuts" lie on the bad side of that divide - threatens to undermine the Tories' central  message about the necessity for cuts and the stupidity of Brown's "investment vs cuts" dividing line.

"Hm," you might be thinking, "but a sub-editor at the Times will have written those headlines, so they may not represent what Osborne's actually saying".  There's some truth in that.  When you read the full article, Osborne's argument is that the choice is between Tory reform and "Labour's frontline cuts" - i.e. a worsening of services - rather than spending cuts per se.  But, as the headline shows, that's a precarious approach.  If the Tories are to gain public support for the measures necessary to deal with Brown's debt crisis – measures which will go far beyond public service reform alone, into the realm of tax rises and other expenditure-reducing plans – then they should be wary of setting up any dividing line which has the word "cuts" on the opposite side from them.

Sure, this is just a matter of rhetoric.  But the rhetoric the Tories use now is crucial to the success of their "Age of Austerity" agenda.  The last thing a Cameron government wants, in a few years time, is to be accused of not letting us know what was in store.