George Osborne is a happy man.
One year ago, the shadow chancellor was pretty sure that he would now be Britain’s most hated politician by now. Yet Osborne has not reaped anything like the level of public notoriety that he was expecting, despite having not softened his cuts plans in any way.
“”I hadn’t reckoned on Nick Clegg”, says Osborne in a comment quoted in a recent FT profile.
Now George Osborne hopes that Clegg’s unpopularity will provide him with invaluable cover not just over spending cuts but, by helping to decide the AV referendum too, for his strategy to win an outright Tory victory at the next general election.
The AV referendum remains up for grabs. As a think-tanker, I would like to live in a world where every referendum was decided on the merits of the issue on the ballot. Labour leader Ed Miliband calls on voters to decide on democracy in his Independent article this morning:
“It is not a referendum on Nick Clegg nor David Cameron. It is a referendum on AV.”
But he acknowledges too that the comparative evidence shows that doesn’t always happen – with voters often expressing a view about the government of the day.
The opinion polls suggest that this referendum could well be decided by Labour voters, many of whom don’t care strongly about the voting reform issue. The No campaign hopes to persuade many of these voters to take the chance to spite Nick Clegg, protesting his decision to form the coalition with the Conservatives. This could well work.
But there is no simple way to vote against the coalition in this referendum.
For if anti-Clegg voting were to lead to a No result, then you can bet that the biggest smile in Westminster on Friday 6th May to be found on the lips of George Osborne,
And that is because of what Osborne hopes to get out of it. He believes that a No vote would give him a crucial boost for the Tory election strategy which he is masterminding for 2015 – so must be hoping the focus on Nick Clegg may help him to keep that off the radar.
The story arc of Nick Clegg’s Icarus-style political trajectory since last year is well known. The fiasco of the broken Lib Dem student fees pledge contrasted so sharply with the promise of a ‘new politics’. Polls show that around half of those who voted Lib Dem a year ago have deserted the Lib Dems. Students, Labour supporters and the media have certainly all torn into the Lib Dem leader with relish.
That there has been so much less heat on David Cameron and George Osborne remains a little mysterious, since they too have broken promises which have a reasonable claim to be in the Clegg class.
Osborne expected to be unpopular primarily because he knew he would need to make deep cuts. Of course, these were bound to break David Cameron’s dishonest TV pledge on the Sunday morning before the election that “if any cabinet minister…says: ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again”. (By contrast, Osborne had long before been privately stressing his intention to cut robustly to the city, and is reported to have asked the Treasury to examine and plan for departmental cuts around 30%).
Osborne said he had no plans to raise VAT, his language carefully left open exacly the amount of wriggle room needed to repeat the Geoffrey Howe dodge from 1979 – hiking VAT in office at the first opportunity after challenging opponents as being liars for saying that was what he would do, and then doing it anyway.
All of this has been muted by the turn from Cleggmania and Cleggphobia. Now George Osborne hopes that the reluctance of Labour voters to vote the same way as the Lib Dem leader over AV will bring him crucial if unwitting allies in his long-term strategy to put the Tories fully into power next time.
Remember, George Osborne is not just chancellor but Tory election strategist too – and a No vote on AV is a crucial part of his plan for a majority in 2015.
An argument could be made that Osborne is in some ways already the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is certainly the prominent Tory who is in charge of the “Campaign for a Tory majority government”, since the coalition-friendly David Cameron must focuses attention as Prime Minister on keeping Nick Clegg happy and the more anxious LibDems onside.
Meanwhile, it is Osborne holds both the national and the party purse-strings.
And it will hardly surprise either his friends or foes that the big idea is to cut deep enough to build an election war chest so the Tories can run on tax cuts as in the 1980s and 1992. For Osborne, the big prize is reversing their retreat on taxes against spending on public services after 1997. His ideological ambition is that it should be like the Labour years never happened.
For Osborne, keeping the current electoral system forms an important part of this plan. So he has stepped up to the plate in the campaign, though constitutional issues are not usually a major focus for a Chancellor of the Exchequer, particularly when his day job might be thought rather pressing in current conditions.
Osborne has hit the headlines with prominent attacks on the Yes campaign – though the idea that the Electoral Reform Society is backing electoral reform might seem unsurprising to many.
Probably more important has been the behind the scenes encouragement to Tory donors. (“Downing Street channelling cash to the No campaign, as the Telegraph reported) to get stuck in.
The message has been that they should support a No vote now – or expect to have to make bigger donations in future because Osborne and the Tories fear election campaigns would be harder to win under AV.
That it may be Osborne who has most to gain – or lose – in Westminster from the referendum is an argument which the well informed Telegraph deputy editor Benedict Brogan has also set out:
“When Conservatives talk of who the biggest loser might be on May 5, they tend to focus on Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg. But if the Lib Dems win the day, secure AV and make it that much harder for the Tories ever to win outright, the big loser will actually be George Osborne, currently the frontrunner to succeed Mr Cameron. He – or whoever comes along to unseat him as leader-in-waiting – will be the one who will find his political fortunes threatened by a Yes on May 5. Which may be a matter of indifference to many of us, but it should certainly give the Tories something to think about.”
And perhaps not only Tories.
Clearly, some Labour voters who find themselves sincerely on the same side as George Osborne, because they think first-past-the-post is a better system than the Alternative Vote. Others think the Alternative Vote would improve our democracy, as I do. So if you know what you think about AV, you should vote on what you think would be better for democracy.
But a large group of Labour people remain undecided. Perhaps you have not been impressed by either the spurious fiction of the No camp about the costs of AV, as a campaign led by the director of the Taxpayers Alliance pretends to be concerned about public spending, or some of the anti-political simplicities of the recent Yes broadcast.
So some people will still be working out how to vote on AV to undermine the coalition.
That’s complicated. A No vote cast to spite Nick Clegg for forming the coalition is also a vote that bolsters George Osborne, the cuts and his strategy for a Tory majority in 2015.
What would the worst outcome be for the government?
The Lib Dems are bracing themselves for a very bad night in Scotland, Wales and around the country on May 5th.
The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley made a cogent case on Sunday that the one result that would really rock the coalition would be big Lib Dem losses in the local elections combined with a Yes vote on AV: “A No vote will be a terrible headache for Nick Clegg; a Yes vote will be a skull-splitting migraine for David Cameron”.
That would see David Cameron facing a furious revolt from his backbenchers and grassroots Tories, as the man who failed to win a majority last May and who had now lost the electoral system they love too. This could see turmoil in both coalition parties – and irreconciliable demands from the LibDem grassroots and the Tory right.
So, if you are Labour, still meh2AV with a fortnight to go, and looking to use your vote against the government, then do ask yourself this before you cast that ballot.
Should Labour focus its fire on the struggling junior partner or the Tory leadership of the coalition?
Just how much do you want to kick Nick Clegg (again) when he’s down?
And, even if you still do, is doing what George Osborne wants most of all really a price worth paying?