You know you’re in trouble when your own MPs are briefing journalists that Gordon Brown had a better record as Chancellor than you. So this quote from an anonymous Tory MP spells out clearly just how angry George Osborne’s MPs are with him after his bungled budget last month:
“All chancellors makes mistakes in budgets. Gordon Brown had his 10p [tax rate] and 75p [increase for pensioners] muck ups. But that was not a bad record for ten years.”
One of the more underrated aspects of Gordon Brown’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer is how he managed to stay there for ten years and emerge relatively popular to the public (albeit not for long!) and indeed make it to become Prime Minister.
Given the number of pitfalls that await you as Chancellor, as George Osborne has discovered this month, it’s amazing that you could only really list two things he did that really blew up in his face.
The first thing, the 75p pension rise was clearly a clerical error of sorts and rectified quickly. On top of that during the good years when Labour introduced or extended the Winter Fuel Allowance, Free TV Licences and free bus passes, it was hard to argue Gordon Brown had anything particular against pensioners (though there is also the wider issue about the decision to tax pension funds but that wasn’t an issue that blew up in his face, being well aired and argued over and also contentious as to how central it was to the widespread closure of final salary pension funds).
The abolition of the 10p tax rate is a funny one as it was Gordon Brown who introduced it. So he managed to induce the fury of the nation simply by reverting the tax system to how it was when he became Chancellor in 1997, except that basic rate Income Tax was at its lowest level in 75 years. The problem was that he did this on the backs of millions of low paid earners who lost out (though it was alleviated somewhat by Alistair Darling). Part of the issue with the 10p rate was not that it was scrapped but Brown’s reaction to it was tin eared and too slow. Much of the problems that arose could have been avoided much earlier.
Nonetheless, for ten years in one of the biggest jobs in politics that’s not a bad record, as even Tory MPs are now grudgingly admitting after witnessing George Osborne’s self-implosion over the last month.
This was meant to be the man who was the Tories uber-grand strategist. Where Gordon Brown, a man who had managed Labour’s three historic general election victories, was a narrow minded fool with his eyes only on the next day’s headlines, Osborne, who failed to manage the Tories to a single general election victory, was meant to be more long term, wisely setting up the playing pieces to entrap his opponents years down the line and guide his party to a glorious victory.
Of course neither caricature is precisely true and there is a weird synergy between the both of them in how they operate politically. Although he would hate to admit it, much of Osborne’s playbook has been lifted directly from Gordon Brown’s.
One of the more amusing anecdotes about Osborne is his fondness of his nickname ‘the submarine’, because he dwells unseen for long periods of time and only surfaces infrequently. It’s a simple difference of emphasis between that and Gordon Brown’s nickname as ‘Macavity’ for always disappearing when things went wrong, like Macavity the Cat.
So in the past month Osborne is now being remembered for numerous ‘tax’ storms, from the granny tax to the pasty tax, the ‘charity’ tax is also blowing up in his face and the ‘church’ tax, regarding alterations to listed buildings (something that will affect Saltaire quite badly) is also rumbling along.
Not bad for a year’s work and this doesn’t even look at the cut in the 50p tax rate. A move designed to strengthen his position as heir apparent to David Cameron is fast becoming a toxic symbol of this government’s priorities. His decision to cut it was likely to be based on the fact that his and Cameron’s economic competence ratings were far ahead of Miliband and Balls’, but the events of the past month have seen that lead dwindle to nothing and now it’s being hung around his neck, along with the granny tax, of a symbol of the government’s priorities in a potentially more lethal way than either the 75p pension or 10p tax issue ever was for Gordon Brown.
Steve Richards at the Independent is fond of commenting on what an achievement it was for Gordon Brown to last as heir apparent for ten years and still make it to the throne. In a way you could argue it weakened the party who were left without ready-in-waiting leaders after so many years of Blair and Brown, but that is a fault of Blair as much as it is of Brown. Nonetheless Richards’ comments are thrown into sharp relief when contrasted with the sudden collapse of Osborne’s stock as leader in waiting for when Cameron takes a bow from centre stage.
And remember, Osborne has not even been Chancellor two years yet.
Gordon Brown hung on for a decade and still make it across to Number 10. Now people are wondering whether Osborne’s stock will ever rise again to a position where he becomes the ‘obvious choice’ or if his ticket is now forever muckied. Certainly there is a more of an opportunity for the more ambitious of the 2010 intake than there was before, and of course Boris Johnson is lurking in the wings as well.
It’s ironic given the amount of damage Osborne managed to inflict on his nemesis Brown, that he now appears to be the man single handedly responsible for people taking a second look at Brown’s tenure as Chancellor and concluding that, whatever disagreements you may have regarding his tax and spend policy, it’s actually a pretty good record given how many tax bombs are clearly waiting to explode in your face at any one moment.
The fact that nearly half a dozen are exploding in George Osborne’s face at one time, and we haven’t even mentioned the Child Tax Credit issue that nearly split his party, serves to make Gordon Brown look a bit better at the whole Chancellor malarkey than perhaps some of us previously thought.