The dangers of playing politics

Being a British Government Minister is an odd job. Ministers have to govern a maddeningly diverse nation of sixty-five million people, and govern well, or one of the hundreds of people behind them in the House of Commons will gleefully take their job. At the same time – as well as being an MP for their seventy thousand or so constituents – they also have to try and stiff the opposition. Indeed, their job prospects depend as much on the latter as on the former.

This diversity of roles is no more evident than with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. All Chancellors are political Chancellors; they have to pay for the schemes of the only person above them in the Government pecking order, and they have to keep all the other Ministers from spending too much on their pet projects. They set the political direction of the Government almost as much as the Prime Minister.

George Osborne is certainly known as a political Chancellor, fond of moves that emphasise the Conservatives’ economic competence whilst highlighting Labour’s lousy poll numbers on the same issue under Ed Miliband. Mr Osborne’s latest plan is to bind the hands of the next Government into maintaining a Budget surplus. A political gimmick perhaps – no Government can bind the hands of its successors – but one with a clear aim, which is more that can be said of some political gimmicks.

There is a clear tension between the needs of a Minister to govern properly and the need to expose the weaknesses of their opponents. The 2012 Budget is a fine example. Who knows how the Budget – probably the Coalition’s biggest political disaster – managed to get past the multiple layers of Treasury scrutiny, but in seeking to set traps for Labour, it did rather boomerang, becoming promptly known as the “Omnishambles Budget”.

Has this lesson been learned? The new Conservative pledge, to be enshrined in law, not to raise any of the main taxes over the life of this Parliament is another of moves that may seem canny on the surface but carries enormous political risks.

It was a pre-election policy made with a clear intent: to show electors prior to May’s vote that the Tories could be trusted not to raise tax, highlighting the tax and spend image of Labour that the Conservatives hammered home. But it is to be a law that depends, rather optimistically, on there being no major unexpected economic event over the next five years that blows the Government’s fiscal plans to smithereens and forces them to either slash spending further (and surely affect key Conservative interest groups) – or raise tax.

Should this happen then the Conservatives will either be forced to repeal a law that they passed or raise other taxes: either option is not pretty, with the latter perhaps even worse. Were this scenario to arise, it could well demolish the Conservatives’ reputation for fiscal competence as easily as Britain’s forced exit from the ERM in 1992 did.

Pledges can be broken in extraordinary circumstances. When, however, political gimmicks designed to put your opponent into a tricky place are turned into law then turning back becomes much more difficult. People forgive Chancellors playing politics, as it’s fully expected; few people forgive Chancellors who play politics so much that they risk damaging their own ability to govern properly.