Charles Moore Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 10 October 2009

In the early Cameronian period, which now feels prehistoric, the only news was good news.

In the early Cameronian period, which now feels prehistoric, the only news was good news. It shows how the recession has turned everything topsy-turvy that this week the Tories have actually been aiming for ‘bad’ headlines. They have succeeded: cut invalidity benefit (weekend press), make people retire later (Tuesday), the ‘new age of austerity’ (Wednesday). This inversion also means that a boring speech is considered a good one. On Tuesday, George Osborne came on to the platform here. ‘Platform’ was the right word, because the set, a photograph of suburban houses from first-storey level, made it look as if George was waving goodbye to his family from an elevated railway before jumping on to the 8.14 from Esher. His delivery was almost unvarying and his message uncompromisingly tough. The only comfort he offered was the solidarity of the commuter when services are delayed: ‘We’re all in this together.’ No one could have enjoyed the speech, and yet the minders were ecstatic.

They were probably right. It would have been terrible if anyone had sensed that Mr Osborne was having fun. He even dressed like an undertaker. But it does surprise me that more attention has not been paid to his proposal for a pay freeze. This will take place in 2011, he announced, and apply to all public-sector workers except the lowest-paid and ‘frontline’ military. The idea is to combine toughness on the deficit with fairness. But there are good reasons why, for nearly 30 years now, governments have avoided having a pay policy. One is that the same for all is not, in fact, fair. Some workers’ pay at the point of freeze will have fallen behind; others’ will have gained. In a freeze, all are trapped, and the struggle to sort this out after the freeze has thawed is clamorous and bitter.

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