Today George Osborne had his second go at playing the axeman. A few cursory chops in the budget – the likes of which we might have called savage in a gentler age – were outdone today by the scale of economic decimation he unveiled. Hundreds of thousands will lose their jobs, a slew of services (few of which were announced in full today) will be cut – and capital investment appears limited to road improvements, combined with crippling rises in train fares. And this from a government who promised to be the greenest ever.
Nick Clegg sat behind the chancellor, stress etched across his face. He has seen the polls – even those in his own constituency – which point to a future electoral meltdown for the Lib Dems. He only perked up during the mention of the ‘pupil premium’, but the gloomy face was back as the taxpayer’s contribution to higher education was decreased, and EMA was scrapped. Behind him on the government benches the Tories loved every minute of this budget. As Osborne sneered at “these children” (those who will be left in Sure Start centres) the Tories whooped and cheered, barely able to contain their excitement. So many of them have waited their entire political lives to hack at the state as Osborne did today. His claims that these cuts are not ideological was laughable, but bold.
After a long speech in which the chancellor’s voice appeared to crack several times, the shadow chancellor, the new (old) boy to this game stood up to speak. Some had derided him for his lack of economic experience, but his quick thinking was tailor made for today’s events. Whilst many in his position might have fallen back on economic jargon whilst formulating their critique, Johnson spoke directly to those who will suffer the most from these cuts – the poor, and those squeezed in the middle of society. He also spoke to the country about the things they care about – jobs, homes and security. Responding to the chancellor, Johnson said:
“Today is the day that an abstract debate about spreadsheets and numbers turns into stark reality for people’s jobs and services. Their pensions, their prospects, their homes and their families.”
Today did not vindicate entirely Ed Miliband’s decision to appoint Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor – that will take time – but what we did see in parliament this afternoon were some of the reasons why he was chosen. A cool, calm head on a stormy afternoon. A man who can address the concerns of ordinary people. And someone who can craft a narrative that explains why what this government has planned is so wrong. Alan Johnson spoke to the squeezed middle today. He spoke to the people who will suffer most.
While Osborne played to the Tory gallery, Johnson spoke to the country. It’s the country that will decide the next election. The campaign to win that election starts today.