Budget 2011: Reaction from the press

Shamik Das rounds up the best budget analysis and commentary in today's papers.

With instant reaction on the blogs dominated by Ken Clarke’s sneaky siesta, Ed Miliband’s barnstorming performance and the fuel fillip given to drivers, the papers the morning after the budget before take a more considered look at the political, economic and personal implications of Mr Osborne’s second budget – though, as always, it’ll be a few days yet before the full, unspun impact of the budget becomes apparent.

In The Times (£), Danny Finkelstein, fresh from chewing the fat with Jeremy Paxman and the politics panel on last night’s Newsnight, describes the budget as “political chess, not a quick magic trick”, with Mr Osborne’s eyes “fixed on the 2015 election”.

Finkelstein also looks at the relationship between Mr Osborne and Mr Clarke, writing (£):

“Let me help you with the Budget. Ask yourself two questions. ‘What on earth did you expect?’ and ‘Why do you think Ken Clarke is in the Cabinet?’ Answer those and you’re most of the way there.

“We’ll begin with Ken Clarke. In October 2008 Gordon Brown appointed Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet, and the whole thing quickly became a bit of a fiasco for George Osborne. A bit of nonsense about who said what to whom on a yacht in Corfu severely weakened the Shadow Chancellor. And it made the appointment of Lord Mandelson, which might have looked desperate, seem a political masterstroke.

“So, as the Christmas party season got under way that year, Mr Osborne planned his response. He called Mr Clarke and suggested that he might like to join the Shadow Cabinet. And, on the face of it, that seemed a rather odd thing to do.

“From the moment that he left the front bench in 1997, the media had been calling for Mr Clarke’s return. Even newspapers who disliked him regarded him as a ‘big beast’ whose presence would make the Tory Opposition seem like a serious alternative government. But the consequences of such a return for Mr Osborne seemed obvious…”

He concludes (£):

“There are many very big advantages for the country and politically in clear-eyed, long-term strategic thinking. But there is one big potential problem, of course. What if he’s wrong?”

In The Guardian, the leader describes the budget as “less a plan for growth than a plan that hopes for growth”:

“Laying out his budget yesterday, George Osborne offered two broad possibilities. The first was that this was a ‘Plan for Growth’: a raft of measures to kickstart private-sector activity. Second, the chancellor claimed to be delivering a truly green budget. Yet neither assertion stacks up.

“This is not so much a growth strategy as a hope-for-growth strategy; an epic gamble that is already failing to pay off. One subject barely mentioned in the chancellor’s budget speech is that net borrowing is going to be higher than forecast even last November over the next couple of years. One big reason for this, according to the OBR, is because tax receipts will be lower than expected, thanks to the weakness of the economy.

“Not all of that should be blamed on the chancellor, but some of it certainly can. And if Mr Osborne presses ahead with his austerity plans he will deserve more of the inevitable flak. Sticking to Plan A when the economy is weakening so fast will look less like necessary toughness and more like political dogma.”

Its end echoes the downbeat nature of the Fink’s conclusion, warning:

“…those hoping for a convincing plan to manage the economy over the short or long-term will be disappointed.”

In the FT, Philip Stephens says (£) the chancellor’s “autopilot” is “locked to Plan A… There really isn’t a plan B”:

“The chancellor had not a lot to say and an hour to fill in saying it. Mr Osborne, a smart politician, knows that it is too early to tell whether history will judge last year’s spending and borrowing cuts as courageous or reckless. Either way, he is not about to change course. This government has an economic plan, he declared at the very outset of his speech, and ‘we are sticking to it’…

“Mr Osborne knows well enough, however, that public consent for swingeing spending cuts is fragile. The polls suggest that the same people who agree that something must be done worry that the chancellor is going too fast and far. It is quite possible to believe that the coalition is right to concentrate in clearing up the fiscal mess and to think at the same time that Ed Miliband has a point in arguing that the cure could kill the patient.

“Mr Osborne argues Britain has no choice. It is also fair to say that Mr Miliband has been a lot more vocal in attacking the government’s cuts than in setting out Labour’s alternative. There are plenty in Mr Miliband’s party who think Labour is missing the chance to rebuild a reputation for economic competence.

“The political storm clouds, though, are gathering over the coalition. Mr Osborne’s purpose was to show that the government can see beyond austerity. The voters, I suspect, need a lot more persuading”

Speaking of Mr Miliband, Andrew Gimson, in his Telegraph sketch, says the Labour leader “falls into George Osborne’s trap and treats him as a maniac who is bound to fail”, that, to Labour:

“The Chancellor of the Exchequer looks like a pre-revolutionary French aristocrat who refuses to apologise for having deflowered every damsel in the village.”

Gimson adds:

“There were one or two good lines in Mr Miliband’s speech: he offered the most amusing soundbite of the afternoon by describing Mr Osborne as ‘Norman Lamont with an iPod’. But what a giveaway that joke was. Labour’s attack on Mr Osborne is entirely backward-looking. On more than one occasion, Mr Miliband actually declared: ‘It’s the same old Tories.’

“The Leader of the Opposition treated Mr Osborne as if he was a second Margaret Thatcher: a figure so hateful there is no need to consider the possibility that the measures the Government is putting in place will in due course bear fruit. There was something almost desperate about the joy with which Mr Miliband fell on the reduced growth forecasts announced by Mr Osborne. It was almost as if Mr Miliband had to show he is just as delighted by these reduced forecasts as Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, is…

“Labour has placed a heavy bet on Mr Osborne being wrong. The two Eds find themselves locked in a competition to see which of them can display a more arrogant pessimism.”

And in the Indy, the excellent Johann Hari, who in the wake of the CSR described coalition Britain as a “colder, crueller country“, writes today that Mr Osborne has failed to learn the lessons of history – be it the Ireland of the late 2000s or the global depression of the thirties:

“There was a moment in the speech when it seemed for a second George had glimpsed where he has been going so badly wrong; and why every time he announces his policies Britain’s growth rate collapses further. He held up Ireland as a warning, an example of a nation descended into disaster.

“Could it be? Had he learned? Until now Osborne had held up Ireland as the ‘shining example’ that he wanted Britain to emulate. Before the Great Crash of 2008 he said we should copy its model of tossing regulation for the rich onto a bonfire and reducing taxes on corporations so dramatically that the country was classed by some as a tax haven. ‘Look and learn from across the Irish Sea,’ he boomed.

“Osborne can note Ireland’s collapse with sadness but he is still religiously following their example, as if it all worked out beautifully over there. the Budget was an enthusiastic mash-up of pre-Crash and post-Crash Irish policies. From before the Crash he took the idea of dramatically slashing restrictions on corporations and the super-rich in the belief that this unleashes the magical power of the market rather than implosion.

“From after the Crash he took the idea of making a panic-payoff of our debt his over-riding purpose. Never mind that our national debt has been higher as a proportion of GDP for 200 of the past 250 years. We don’t need to guess where this leads. We can simply, as Osborne recommended once, ‘look and learn from across the Irish Sea’…

“This was a Budget that abandoned everything we have learned about economics since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We discovered then that in a recession, consumers – quite rightly – cut their spending and save more. But if the Government does the same thing at the same time then nobody is spending and the recession gets worse. George is cheerfully doing just that while humming a rare old Irish ditty.

What’s that terrible sound? It’s John Maynard Keynes spinning and howling in his grave.”

• Left Foot Forward will have further analysis and reaction to the budget throughout today.

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