George Osborne has done a good job of filling in for David Cameron while the Conservative leader is on compassionate leave. His speech to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce on Friday was not only rich in analysis and policy but sought, as all important political speeches should, to get people thinking.
As was widely quoted, he linked the failure of the banks to a more general social problem of excessive debt and inadequate saving:
‘Our banks hold a mirror up to the worst excesses of our society. And the unsustainable debts in our banks are a reflection of unsustainable debate in our households’
The speech wasn’t just rhetoric. It contained not only policy ideas but also, bravely, the suggestion of a tax increase:
‘…I believe the time has come to look again at the generosity of interest deductibility in our corporate tax system….by reducing the tax breaks on debt we could potentially fund a significant reduction in the headline rate of corporation’
Given the strength of the speech, especially in comparison to some of the recent speeches I have heard from Government ministers, it is churlish to criticise but, hey, churlish is my middle name (actually it’s Gertrude, but that’s another story).
There were two things that Osborne could have done to make a very good speech into something really special. The first would have been to recognise how the Conservatives themselves were part of the culture of ‘borrow now pay later’. Not only did they consistently call for more deregulation of financial services, but in the midst of the housing boom they advocated inheritance tax cuts that would have fuelled it even faster. More fundamentally, the Conservatism of the 1980s and 90s was in thrall just as much as New Labour to the City culture which underlay the excesses from which we are now all suffering.
Secondly, Osborne could have reflected – as Nick Clegg did to his credit yesterday – on the broader failure of governance that creates politicians so unwilling to tell the public hard truths, such as, for example, you shouldn’t buy a house if you haven’t saved at least some of the cost first.
In his peroration Osborne says
‘ The Conservatives are ready to tell people these home truths and the country is ready to hear them’
Great. But the shadow chancellor needs to tell us more about how a Conservative Government would keep itself honest when the pressure is on to make voters happy today whatever the costs for people tomorrow.