THE BLOG

The Undoing of George Osborne

16/03/2016 07:58 GMT | Updated 16/03/2017 09:12 GMT

As a Treasury Minister, apprehension always hung heavy in the air on Budget morning. Would centrepiece polices come across clearly? Would problems we wanted to downplay loom large? Would the Budget go down well with our MPs, with the media and above all with the public?

Today George Osborne has much to be apprehensive about.

Four months ago in the Spending Review he insisted that the economy was on the up and so "the savings we need are considerably smaller". This week he's been touring TV studios warning that "the storm clouds are clearly gathering" and that billions of pound of fresh cuts now need to be made.

It's a big about-turn, but what's changed? The GDP and public finance forecasts are now more pessimistic, and will be confirmed in the Budget. But as every undergraduate is taught, you shouldn't set your course by any single set of figures, as Osborne did in November. It was the Chancellor's desire for short-term political gain that led him to jump on upbeat forecasts then, from which he is set to row back now.

The bigger change is that the consequences of the Chancellor's serial misjudgements are becoming clear.

I suspect that even those who thought Osborne was right over the last five years - and many who voted in the general election last May did - will now increasingly see the signs of a man making the wrong calls. A chop-and-change Chancellor interested in short-term fixes not the right long-term decisions for the country.

Since last year's election, his first big misjudgement was on tax credits - thinking the British public would accept him balancing the books on the backs of low and middle income workers whose incomes have been squeezed for years. The supposed u-turn in the Spending Review exposed the error in the minds of many - this was the Chancellor's political choice, and the wrong one.

His second and bigger misjudgement was a new deficit rule which has bundled in vital investment spending on new schools, roads and homes with day-to-day spending on salaries and running costs of public services. This will have the effect of dramatically restricting the amount we can invest for the future, when everyone from the OECD and IMF, to the government itself knows that wise public investment creates jobs and growth - and stimulates private investment too.

In fact, it captures the essence of Osborne as a Chancellor. A rule that stops good fiscal planning for the long-term, focusing instead on the short-term cuts over this Parliament. Good politics for an ambitious Chancellor, bad economics for an ambitious country.

These major misjudgements should cause us to re-evaluate Osborne's record.

One widely held view which Labour has so far failed to shift is that he has put the economy back on a surer footing, even though families suffered with wage growth weak and household incomes stagnating. But a clear-eyed view of the last five years suggests that this is not the case.

Osborne didn't fix the foundations after the crash. Any right-wing finance minister can cut public spending. But George Osborne has dodged the tough decisions to re-new the economy and set the priorities for how we will pay our way and create good jobs and broad-based growth in the future.

Rather than invest in Britain's future, he cut back investment on the energy, roads and railways that secure our place in the world and the future welfare of our citizens. UK public infrastructure investment was halved in the last Parliament, while Osborne courted the Chinese to fund it for us.

Rather than helping British business sell to the world, Osborne has overseen our trade gap last year plunge to -£80billion, a near-record low.

Rather than reform the finance sector and bring on our manufacturing and construction base, we've seen major firms in strategic industries like steel and renewables forced out of business, while jobs in manufacturing are still almost 10% below pre-crisis levels.

Rather than investing in building new homes to fix Britain's broken housing market and cut housing benefit costs, Osborne slashed housing investment by 60% and housing benefit has risen by over £4billion a year in cash terms.

Rather than re-balancing the economy away from consumption and debt as he promised, household debt is forecast to top 160% of income by the end of the Parliament for the first time since 2009.

Labour's alternative budget rule would deal with the deficit but in a fairer, long-term way.

It bears strong resemblance to the Budget rule we operated when I was at the Treasury - tough on the deficit and paying down debt, with scope for prudent investment in the national interest. A far more balanced and centre-ground Budget rule than the Chancellor's new fiscal charter.

Today's Budget will amplify the question: if George Osborne got it so wrong in last four months, how can we trust him to get it right for the next four years? The Chancellor's short-term fixes and lack of long-term vision may yet be his undoing - and Labour's opportunity.

John Healey is the shadow secretary of state for housing and planning and Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne