20/03/2013 11:14 GMT | Updated 20/05/2013 06:12 BST

The Boy Who Cried Growth: The Empty Rhetoric of George Osborne

"It is taking longer than anyone hoped, but we must hold to the right track," said the chancellor George Osborne, to jeers from Labour MPs, as he presented his fourth Budget to the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon. "And by setting free the aspirations of the nation, we will get there."

Will we? Really? Are we any closer to those "calmer, brighter seas" he once promised? To paraphrase one of Osborne's predecessors, is there anything he could ever say now about growth that we could ever believe?

Consider his first ''emergency' Budget (2010). "We have provided the foundations for economic recovery in all parts of our nation and... laid the foundations for a more prosperous future."

Consider his second Budget (2011). "We have put fuel into the tank of the British economy."

Consider his third Budget (2012). "This country borrowed its way into trouble. Now we're going to earn our way out."

This is the chancellor who keeps crying growth. Relying on over-optimistic forecasts from the OBR, Osborne used his first budget to tell us that growth would be 2.8% in 2012. Guess what? It was zero in 2012. He and his friends at the OBR said growth would be 2.9% in 2013; today we were told it'll be a paltry 0.6%. Since the chancellor's Spending Review in October 2010, the economy has grown by 0.7% - compared to the 5.3% forecast at the time, and compared to the 4%-plus achieved by the United States over the same period.

So where's our version of the Obama stimulus? Where was the Osborne plan for growth? In the months leading up to this Budget, as the consensus on austerity cracked, a new political and economic consensus seemed to have formed: on the need for more infrastructure spending - and fast.

What did the chancellor promise today? "[B]y using our extra savings from government departments, we will boost our infrastructure plans by £3 billion a year from 2015-16."


Just £3bn, despite the fact that the UK economy is smaller now than it was in September 2011 and despite the fact that there have been £12.8 billion of cuts to infrastructure investment in the last three years (compared to the plans Osborne inherited in 2010)? And, that too, £3bn after the next general election, in two years time? To call this complacency would be an understatement of epic proportions.

"Premature". "Self-defeating". "Completely at odds with economic theory". That was the verdict of the three former members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee who I interviewed earlier this week on Osborne's austerity measures. Messrs Posen, Blanchflower and Wadhwani won't be too impressed with the chancellor's refusal to change course today. "In these situations," Sushil Wadhwani, founder and CEO of Wadhwani Asset Management and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, told me, "what you have to do is be very aggressive and change expectations. And then the debt will take care itself. The best way to deal with leverage is to get some growth...quickly and aggressively."

Britain, lest we forget, is experiencing its slowest recovery for a hundred years; the economy needs, in the words of Labour's shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, the "Big Bang treatment".

Conservatives claim Ed Balls is their greatest asset. The inconvenient truth is that George Osborne has become Labour's greatest electoral asset. As Ed Miliband's chief strategist, Lord Wood, tweeted during the Budget:

"Growth (but not yet); Debt Reduction (but not till post-2017); Fiscal Rules (but targets pushed back). George Osborne, the Mañana Chancellor."

Osborne's Tory critics on the right won't be too pleased, either. In a blog post for the Huffington Post UK in the run-up to Wednesday's Budget, Tory backbencher and alleged plotter Adam Afriyie told the chancellor that "now is the time for the government to think bigger... Otherwise people will start to think we're being wilfully stubborn."

Wilfully stubborn, indeed. Growth has ground to a halt, real wages are falling and more than 6m people want work but can't find it: yet our chancellor continues to fiddle - with beer duties and the pottery industry - as the British economy flatlines.

"When the facts change, I change my mind," the economist John Maynard Keynes is said to have remarked. What do you do, sir?" It's a quote that the Osborne's Lib Dem cabinet colleague, the business secretary Vince Cable, invoked a few weeks ago when he used an essay in the New Statesman to demand higher capital spending funded through higher borrowing. This afternoon, history graduate Osborne studiously ignored economist Cable's advice.

When I watched the chancellor deliver his budget today the quote that came to mind wasn't from a long-dead British economist but from a contemporary US satirist. Speaking at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, Stephen Colbert mocked George Bush's famous if unwarranted sense of certainty. "The greatest thing about this man is he's steady," declared Colbert. "You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday."

As with George Bush, so with George Osborne.