The headline on the front page of Thursday's edition of the Sun was particularly impressive, as that paper goes. It was 'WIN-GO!', which doesn't sound like much, until you realise that it was stylised to match the logo of the Sun's own online bingo site. The headline succeeded as an advertisement for the Conservatives and an advertisement for the Sun's various money-making offshoots at the same time. Impressive, right? And, front and centre, was a picture of the Chancellor, George Osborne, brandishing the red box, as Chancellors do on Budget day. The page then listed eight changes that they liked from the 'Budget for Sun readers' - yes, they were labelled with bingo balls, glad you asked.
These eight changes, when dealt with one by one, are of course small potatoes, empty pledges and downright mistakes. The first - a cut in the tax on bingo halls - is not exactly going to kick-start the economy overnight. The second was a 2p cut in the price of a pint of beer. This won't be passed on to the customer, of course, but to the breweries, and will therefore do nothing. Next, a pledge that pensioners 'can cash in' - dubious as a revenue-raiser and perhaps even a trigger to financial irresponsibility; keep your eyes peeled for OAPs in Ferraris and Lamborghinis, comb-overs flickering as they blast away as the lights go green.
It carries on in this vein. The extension to Help to Buy, the housing programme, is flat-out crazy, further inflating a market that needs no more hot air whatsoever. The proclamation over an extra £500 of tax-free pay is a Lib-Dem idea. The raising of the ISA limit up to £15,000 does nothing for ordinary working people - or hard-working people, if we use the Tory language - because no-one is earning enough to save at the moment, and no-one can get anything like a decent return on savings in this market either. The last two, I'm not 100% sure on, but I think they may be bunk - ball number seven announces 'a million more jobs', but gives no space over to the still-chronic youth unemployment rate, and ball number eight, saying that there's been a 'freeze on a wee dram', I have to confess passed me by completely. Eight pledges, eight complete piles of nonsense. Growth is of course returning, but the economy is still in a desperately poor state, and the vast majority of us are no better off than we were when Mr. Osborne first crossed the threshold of the Treasury.
So why did the Chancellor get such a good press, then? There are several reasons. One is that the Labour party, having effectively conceded the argument on austerity, has been castrated as a legitimate voice on economic policy, and can't offer alternatives for fear of being harangued as 'the guys who drove the car off the cliff'. The second is that this was not a Budget, not really. It was a purely political exercise, with Osborne tinkering on the margins of effectiveness, but flicking switches that he knew would turn on the lights of the traditional Tory voter who might have been flirting with UKIP lately. No-one can argue that bingo halls and pints of bitter are going to close the productivity gap or help bring wages in line with prices, but they sell well to the sort of people who Osborne needs to put their Xs next to the Tories in 2015. The big one in that regard was the pensions liberalisation. The Conservatives are well-known for their dependence on the grey vote. All the right-wing papers, with their vast readerships of over-65s, were praising Osborne today for his pensions move, right on the front pages. The Express was especially orgiastic, using the phrase 'Joy For All', which nearly made me vomit in the middle of Birmingham New Street station. But then, I am not an OAP, and it was not my vote that Osborne was chasing with his Budget.
At a certain point in the electoral cycle, the Budget becomes solely about politics. We witnessed that every time Gordon Brown made a pre-election Budget, and also when he gave his last Budget before becoming Prime Minister. The general election is little over a year away - that explains a great deal about the choices Osborne made on Wednesday. But it isn't the whole story. Lately, there have been rumours about certain high-ups in the Tory party being on 'manoeuvres', should a vacancy become available at the very top of the tree after 2015. The suggestion was that Michael Gove, education secretary and (bizarrely) a big player within the Conservatives, had backed Osborne to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader over the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The person to whom Gove was so eagerly recommending the Chancellor was Rupert Murdoch, a man with whom you may be familiar.
Call me cynical, but that was what popped into my mind when I saw George Osborne on the front of Murdoch's Sun newspaper on Thursday, looking for all the world like a surprised character in a Punch and Judy skit. I realised, looking at those appalling bingo balls, that this was a budget solely designed for the people who still populate Tory membership associations, manning their fundraising tombolas and passing around the tea and biscuits at meetings. I remembered, too, the rules of Conservative leadership elections, which dictate that, when the number of candidates narrows to two, the leader is decided by balloting all members of the party. And I thought to myself - when the next Conservative leadership election is conducted, probably but not definitely in 2015, which way will the membership, the ordinary rank-and-file Tories, swing? Will they move to the blond buffoon in City Hall? Would they plump for austere, hardline Mrs. May? Could Gove, the human-duck hybrid, take a chunk of them? Or would they perhaps go with that nice Mr. Osborne, who wrote that Budget just for them?