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With his speech tomorrow, Osborne is trying to pre-empt a new set of political circumstances

By Peter Hoskin
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Here are some numbers to chew over with your Sunday brunch. In December last year, George Osborne’s approval rating in our Cabinet rankings stood at a measly minus 1 per cent. In the latest Cabinet league table he’s on 52 per cent.

That’s a faster, steeper rise than any of the Chancellor’s colleagues have enjoyed, and it tallies with a report in today’s Mail on Sunday. Whether Osborne is now officially the Tory backbenchers’ favourite to replace David Cameron as party leader, as the report suggests, I don’t know – but his position is certainly far less vulnerable than it was last summer, when I wrote about it for the Times (£). Funny what a little ol’ economic recovery can do.

Yet it’s not just Osborne’s standing that will be affected by the continued prospect of growth, but the entire shape of British politics. I’ve discussed this numerous times before, including here and here, but tomorrow it will become clearer than ever – for the Chancellor is set to deliver a speech on the economy.

Team Osborne are putting it about that this speech will not be brash and triumphal, but it will be chirpy, and in a couple of significant ways:

It will, in the words, of the Mail on Sunday, “promise to share the fruits of a ‘healing’ economy with hard-working, low-income families”. This could be a hint as to how Osborne will answer the question that I asked a few weeks ago: if growth forecasts rise, and the Exchequer’s tax receipts with them, how will the Chancellor use extra, anticipated money? Will he use it for swifter decifit reduction? Or will he earmark it for tax cuts and spending giveaways instead? The answer will come in future Budgets, but I suspect that Osborne will veer towards the latter option.

It will “goad Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls for claiming that the economy was ‘flatlining’”.  A growing economy presents the Chancellor with plenty of political opportunities, but it doesn’t leave Labour empty-handed, either. Now they can argue not just about who is losing out from fiscal austerity, but also – as per Caroline Flint’s comments yesterday, as well as Ed Miliband’s whole “squeezed middle” thesis – that not everyone is gaining from economic recovery. Besides, growth might also persuade voters that the Tories’ medicine isn’t required any more. This is, no doubt, part of the reason why Osborne is getting in his attacks on Balls so soon. He wants to put his counterpart on the defensive, right from the off.

Of course, on this, one would rather be in Cameron and Osborne’s position than Miliband and Balls’s. Polling suggests that they are already the favoured pair to marshal our economy and public finances, and recovery is unlikely to do any harm on that front. But change, any change, can be unpredictable – Osborne is trying to pre-empt it, as best he can, tomorrow.


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