A budget, a referendum and a leadership contest

By Jill Segger
March 17, 2016

George Osborne may be a poor economist, but he is, beyond doubt, a skilful political operator.

Yesterday's budget was a pitch for the top job in British politics and as such, was inflected by the forthcoming EU referendum and by David Cameron's stated intent not to stand for a third term as leader of the Conservative Party.

If the electorate decides on 23 June that Britain should leave the European Union, it is difficult to see how either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor could remain in office. That is, if either would wish to do so, given not just a rejection of David Cameron's narrowly focused and over-hyped 'special status' but also of the immense complexities of disentangling the UK from four decades of membership.

Referendums are influenced by the popularity or otherwise of the government which grants them. Similarly, the personalities on each side are likely to sway opinion. Boris Johnson's vaulting ambition may be camouflaged as a variety act, but Osborne knows his rival and knows that this is not the time to upset what he sees as his own core support. Today's Daily Express front page has the necessary proof: “Outrage at pro-EU referendum”.

But such short term self-serving has its cost. The price of George Osborne's failure to meet his own targets is being paid in the lives of sick and disabled people whose benefits are to be cut to 'balance the books'. Neither their existence, nor that of the poorly paid and insecurely employed who depend on tax credits, was even acknowledged in the budget. This callous approach was exacerbated by linking this 'saving' with tax breaks for higher earners. It seems that several Tory MPs have now begin to protest at this.

George Osborne has either missed or abandoned all his fiscal targets. There remains his intention of running a budget surplus of £10 billion by the end of this parliament. The head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, has described the Chancellor as “running out of wriggle room”, saying: “His chances of having a surplus in 2019-20 are only just the right side of 50/50.”

Mr Johnson added: “In the longer term the public finances are kept on track only by adding yet another year of planned austerity on the spending side.” An austerity which takes from the most vulnerable to give to the better off can only therefore get worse, as by the Chancellor's own estimates, a further £3.5 billion will need to be cut from public spending.

For some time, senior Conservatives have been adding 'security' to their statements wherever possible. This buzzword is a useful dog-whistle on more than one level. The obvious, if subliminal, connection in a time of international terrorism is that austerity is somehow prophylactic against armed jihadis in our streets. The politics of fear distorts far more than the competing views on membership of the EU.

On the more everyday level, it is of course applicable to the right of every person to be securely housed, fed and employed. That is why the applicable term for decent support in periods of illness, disability, homelessness and unemployment is 'social security'. The government's preference for 'welfare' or even 'handouts' is designed to obscure this humane guarantee of being secure in one's own society. The usage also ignores the reality of the housing shortage, of growing food bank use and of low paid employment under poor conditions in creating deep insecurity for so many.

We have to think hard about what kind of society we are becoming. Do we want people whose lives are already painful and difficult to be subjected to avoidable fear and anxiety? Are we content for the least fortunate to bear the greatest burdens? Should we remain untroubled by economic planning – long term or otherwise – which sweeps aside so many of our fellow citizens as collateral damage? And above all, can we accept any of this as an instrument of any politician's personal ambition?

* You can access all Ekklesia's commentary and analysis on the 2016 Budget here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/budget2016

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.