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George Osborne's reforms won't avoid the need for painful adjustments

OsbornegraphicIf George Osborne's use of the progressive term has annoyed some people on the Right it has also, more importantly, provoked Lord Mandelson.  The acting PM accused the Shadow Chancellor of "political cross-dressing".  The Left like to think they own the issue of poverty and hate it when Conservatives deny them their moral exclusiveness.

I've never understood why some on the Right are happy to allow the Left to monopolise the best words.  That's why I was very supportive of attempts to take the concept of social justice away from Labour.  As long as the term isn't used to smuggle in left-wing ideas the tactic is not so much politically sensible as a political slam dunk.  Just as Tony Blair co-opted conservative language in the mid-1990s (remember his claim to be a one nation politician?) it makes sense for us to do the same.

George Osborne has now given his speech and his central argument is threefold:

  1. Brown is a roadblock to public sector reform and Ed Balls, in particular is undoing the Blairite progress in education.
  2. Without reforming schools and hospitals the looming cuts in public spending are going to be very hard for poorer families, in particular.
  3. Conservatives will reform public services by building on successful models of reform from America, Australia, Sweden and other parts of the world.  In the most powerful three sentences of his speech he summarises the situation in Britain under Labour: "Productivity in our public sector fell by 3.2% between 1997 and 2007. As a result the World Economic Forum now ranks the UK 76th out of 134 countries on efficiency of public spending. That is not just behind the high-achievers such as Singapore (1st), Finland (5th) and Sweden (18th); it also puts us behind countries like Greece (75th), Mozambique (70th), Tajikistan (68th) and Ethiopia (46th)."  Our public sector is less efficient than the Greek public sector!

I'm just left with one worry.  The speech (read it in full here) is very upbeat.  It's attractive because of its faith in reform, technology and decentralisation but it only read as half-true.  The half that's true is that without reform the spending squeeze will be extra painful but the bit missing was the part where George Osborne should have said that the age of austerity was still going to be very painful.  Reform is necessary but it won't be enough for the Conservatives to avoid very, very tough decisions on service provision and possibly taxes.  The Conservatives need a mandate for those.

Tim Montgomerie


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