George Osborne: he was for cracking down on public sector pay before he was against it reviewing it

by Stephen Tall on April 7, 2009

Poor old George Osborne. It’s a tough job being Ken Clarke’s deputy the Tories’ shadow chancellor, desperately walking the tightrope between keeping happy your right-wing, Hannan-worshipping party activists (and that’s the majority of them), while trying not to scare away the voters for whom a right-wing, Hannan-worshipping party is a nightmare spectre (and that’s the majority of them).

That, at least, is the only explanation I can come up with for George’s current confusion about whether or not he’s in favour of a crack down on public sector pay and pensions. Here, for instance, is the Financial Times which leads with the right-wing, Hannan-worshipping version:

The Conservative party pledged to crack down on public sector pay and pensions on Monday, in a politically risky bid to make state “excess” a battle line at the next general election. … George Osborne, shadow chancellor, insisted that a Conservative government would ensure “the bulk of the strain” fell on spending cuts rather than tax rises. Highlighting public sector pay, he said a Tory government was “going to have to make difficult decisions in this area”.

And then here’s the non-scary, mainstream-leaning version courtesy The Times:

The Conservatives rowed back from a confrontation with police, teachers and nurses last night after appearing to suggest that they wanted to tear up three-year pay deals. George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, beat a retreat within hours of criticising the settlements as “inflexible” because of changing economic conditions. … Several hours later, Mr Osborne’s advisers clarified the position. They said that while the three-year deals were inflexible the Conservatives were not “gunning for them” because they would be into their third year by the expected time of an election. “What we are saying is that we will look at them to see whether we can make them more flexible.”

George’s shilly-shallying didn’t impress the right-wing, Hannan-worshipping Daily Mail, accusing the Tories of being ‘equivocal’, ‘vague’ and ‘muttering’, while lauding Lib Dem deputy leader Vince Cable as the The Lib Dem who gives it to us straight:

Once again yesterday, LibDem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable proved more convincing than Labour or the Tories in outlining how he would fill the terrifying gap opening up in the public finances. … Contrast that with Mr Cable’s clear demand that we must slash spending on public-sector pensions, cut back sharply on our global defence commitments and overhaul the ruinous tax credits system. He even has the courage to question Labour’s aim to put 50 per cent of young people in higher education, saying it’s ‘almost certainly not affordable’. … with his sure touch, he alone seems to recognise that the public are ready for some straight-talking.

Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer, eh Vince?

The Evening Standard’s Paul Waugh links the Osborne story to two others – the aforementioned Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s unrepetentant remarks that the NHS was a “mistake” and Edward Leigh’s public call for the repeal of the Hunting Act – to suggest that a ‘perfect storm’ is brewing for the Tories during David Cameron’s Easter break.

… collectively the three issues may threaten to wreck the hard work that the Cameroons have done in repositioning the Conservatives in the voters’ eyes. Of course, in each case there is of course a perfectly good argument respectively for cutting public spending, radically reforming the NHS and repealing the Hunting Ban. These are arguments that the Tory rank and file will enthusiastically endorse. … Any perception of the party attacking public sector workers such as police and nurses, just as its popularity is rising among this key group of voters, is also unwelcome, hence the frantic “clarification” of Osborne’s remarks.