Peter Hoskin

Supplementary notes on Osborne’s progressive speech

Supplementary notes on Osborne's progressive speech
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Earlier, I wrote that Osborne's speech today seemed to be a significant moment for Project Cameron.  Having attended the Demos event a few hours ago, I still think that's the case.  Sure, there wasn't anything particularly new in it - and the delivery didn't quite zing - but its central point that Brown's approach to the public finances is regressive, while spending cuts and the right reforms could deliver better services for all, is a necessary refinement of the Tory message.  Come election time, Brown is going to deploy all kinds of attacks on the "nasty Tories" and their "cuts in frontline services", so it's important for Cameron & Co. that they counter this in advance.

Here, for the record, are a couple of supplementary points that I jotted in my notebook while listening to Osborne:

The reform argument has always been the progressive argument.  In some respects, it's quite frustrating to hear Osborne stressing now how cuts needn't mean worse services; how public service reform can actually deliver better services for all, while reducing costs.  Why wasn't he forcing this same point a couple of years ago, instead of committing to Labour's spending targets?  Sure, the fiscal position has worsened since.  But Brown was still spending, borrowing, spending back then, and often for limited returns.  The arguments for why reform is necessary and desirable are the same arguments for why it was necessary and desirable five years ago.  

More charitably, I guess these arguments are better made late than never.  The great service that the next government can do for politics, as well as for the British public, is to completely destroy the old consensus that public spending is a good thing in and of itself.  It the Tories continue to push this idea of "more for less" - and, of course, implement the policy agenda which sees it happen - then they have a good chance of doing so.

Why operate in Brown's shadow?  I understand the Tory thinking behind saying the 45p/50p upper tax rate will be "difficult to avoid" - they don't want to give Brown room to attack them for "looking after their rich friends", it's a difficult argument to make, yada, yada, yada.  But - given the evidence that raising the upper rate could actually reduce the contributions made by the best-off in society, covered by Fraser here - wouldn't it be a progressive act to oppose it outright?  I may be being overly idealistic here, but this is the main reason why I think the Tories should fight Brown over his cynical tax hikes: they could just end up increasing the burden on the least well-off.  What's more, given Brown's position, it's a fight you'd think the Tories would stand a good chance of winning.

Ok, you may not agree with me on the Tory strategy over 45p/50p.  And there's the point that they could always repeal or not introduce it once they get into power – all's well that ends well, and all that.  But it rather typifies a presentational problem with Osborne's speech today: if Brown is a regressive politician, why stick by some of his fiscal policies?  Is that giving them the progressive stamp of approval?  I doubt that's how the Tories want it to be taken, but it's certainly open to that interpretation.