Adam Boulton's interview with George Osborne today came at a significant moment. For the first time, with the Labour government visibly crumbling, Osborne's credibility matters. Boulton gave him a harder time than he would any interviewee from further left, but Osborne held up well. He avoided cheap attacks and refused to provide more policy ideas for his intellectually-bankrupt opponents. In the course of this fencing, he managed to land a few blows. Boulton persisted with the Labour Party line about the Tories just "knocking the government" while providing no policy alternatives. For a second I thought he had landed a killer blow when he said that, well before Blair's first election victory the Labour Party had given "clear pledges on tax". Osborne's response was masterful, apart from the strange hesitation which gave me my bad moment. Saying;
I don't want to pick you up on your history again, Adam...
he pointed out that those pledges were given just five months before an election, not two years. Perhaps his hesitation was about the word "again?" Perhaps he was concerned to avoid even such a subtle dig at an important commentator far too close to the establishment? Conservatives remain strangely keen to "play nice" in the face of Labour's consistently amoral tactics. David Cameron's prissy early comment about "Punch and Judy politics" was a big mistake. It gives mealy-mouthed Labourites the opportunity to criticise any Tory attacks, while gleefully urging on their own pack of political hounds.
Osborne sounded the right note of confidence when he closed Boulton down with the comment;
People will know exactly what we are doing about tax, when we have an opportunity to do something about tax, that is when there is a General Election
He went on to list specific commitments the Tories have already made and promised more over the next two years as the election approaches. His response to Boulton's partisan sneering at the International Monetary Fund "seeming to have persuaded themselves" that we face the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was good. He skilfully avoided any charges of schadenfreude or of "talking down" the markets without actually contradicting the IMF's (sadly plausible) view. He confined himself to pointing out that;
Britain is ill-prepared for this as we have the biggest budget deficit in the world
(is that really true?) and by mildly observing that
As far as I know, we are the only country in the world which is responding to the current crisis with tax increases
This was the issue on which, predictably, Osborne pleased me least. The dangerous suggestion that in Alistair Darling's unenviable place he might have stimulated the housing market with lower stamp duty made me shudder, as did his comment that he would have retained the 10p rate of income tax. The housing market is already light years beyond cloud cuckoo land and stimulus is the last thing it needs. As for income tax, in his place I would have proposed to take those on or around the minimum wage out of tax altogether. He could and should have attacked the cynical process whereby Labour takes poor peoples' money in order to buy their votes and control their lives by giving it back as benefits. This is something that Britain's working poor understand very well and Osborne missed a trick.
Nor was I particularly impressed by his suggestion that we might be able so to regulate the credit system as to prevent future debt bubbles. The only way to avoid problem debt is to let people suffer the consequences of their imprudence. They they will regulate their conduct more subtly than any government could hope to do. Osborne will live to regret those words, when future debtors blame him for failing to protect them from their own stupidity.
Boulton asked about the Prime Minister's political difficulties and raised the possibility of his stepping down. Osborne's response was so good that even Tony Benn could not accuse him of putting personality above policy. Saying he thought it was "unlikely" that Brown would step down [too right; Labour lacks anyone with the courage to be Tsvangirai to their very own Mugabe] he added that people in the Labour Party were not just unhappy with Brown's "manner" but with his policies. Then he commented that people must doubt if a Government "fighting with itself" can lead the country well. This was deliciously snide, yet delivered with an air of cherubic innocence.
On the whole though his performance was more workmanlike than inspiring. On the BAe corruption scandal, he avoided being skewered with the "destruction of thousands of British jobs" nonsense by saying the Attorney General should have the right to stop a prosecution on grounds of "national security" (not "national interest" please note). However any such decision should be subject to judicial scrutiny. Personally, I agree with Iain Dale's principled stand for the rule of law in this matter, but - politically - this was a good line. Osborne noted that arms represent only 2-3% of our exports and even made my point that other exporters will have their position damaged by the government's shocking (and illegal) action.
More impressive, in its way, was Nicholas Soames's handling of a dangerous question about the Shannon Matthews case. He responded by saying we should be concerned as to why there were so many dysfunctional families like Shannon's. He hinted at the problem of welfare dependency undermining the family without being all "Daily Mail" about it. He spoke up for the good people of Dewsbury and the community spirit they had wasted on such undeserving people. Well done Big Nick. Now please never appear on TV again for the good of your party. I know it's wrong that all the viewing public see is a fat toff but please have the sophistication to realise that's the only reason you are the media's favourite Tory. Well, that and the folk memory of your ex-wife's alleged comments about you.