George Osborne may be 'toxic' - but he's practically powerless
Budget preview: with the cupboard bare, and the Lib Dems happy to see him fail, Chancellor can only wait for Carney
IF A POLL in the Evening Standard is correct, George Osborne is now so "toxic" that when his name is associated with a policy its popularity plummets. Worse still for the Chancellor is that with his opposite number, Ed Balls, the reverse is the case. Apparently, when a Labour policy is linked to Balls its rating actually rises.
Next week Osborne is due to deliver his fourth Budget since 2010, and even before this latest poll the stakes were uncomfortably high. As always, speculation is mounting as to what will be in the famous red box when he sets out for the Commons on Wednesday.
Normally this is a game the Treasury is only too happy to play. This year, though, the word is that the Tories and Lib Dems have agreed, after last year's "omnishambles", that neither side should leak the contents.
We will have to wait for the weekend press to see whether that holds. But, Osborne's dismal poll ratings apart, there is another reason why the Treasury and No 10 may be less eager than usual to court publicity. Three years of a flat-lining economy means that the government finds itself with perilously little room left for manoeuvre, financially as well as politically.
Of course, this will not stop the Chancellor from trying to pull a few rabbits out of his red box. Expect something for the motorist, to placate the increasingly restive Tory backbenchers, and something for the low paid to please the Lib Dems.
But anything he gives with one hand he will have to take away with the other. With his triple-A rating gone, it also means that even if he wants to heed calls to change course and go easy on his drive for austerity, he is not in a position to do so.
It is not just because the country has run out of money, however, that Osborne finds himself so hemmed in. He is, after all, not the first Chancellor to have to cope when the cupboard is bare. But he is the first in a long time to lack a majority in the House of Commons.
Back in the palmier days of 2010 this did not appear to matter, or at least not so much. One of the coalition's original selling points was that having two governing parties meant that it could be bolder and more radical when it came to tackling Britain’s economic woes than a single party could be on its own.
Three years later that is no longer the case, particularly as far as the Lib Dems are concerned. They may still be in the coalition but many of them would be perfectly happy to see Osborne flop next week, such is the current level of antagonism between the two parties.
There is no chance the Lib Dems will allow the tax cuts many Tories crave without a substantial concession to one of their own pet causes, any more than there is of the Chancellor heeding Vince Cable’s call last week for more borrowing.
With the coalition increasingly constrained by its own contradictions, it is little wonder that its leaders seem keen on playing the Budget down. The longer the economy languishes in the doldrums, the clearer it becomes that any major change of policy before the next election is going to have to come from the Bank of England, not the government.
The big economic news this year is much more likely to be the arrival in the summer of the Bank’s much heralded new Governor, the Canadian Mark Carney, rather than anything Osborne has to say on Wednesday. Armed with an unlimited ability to create money it is the Bank that has the firepower these days, and how Carney chooses to deploy it will be crucial.
If he calls it right, he could finally boost the economy out of the rut it has been in since 2008. If he gets it wrong, we could be in for another five years of anaemic growth, or even none at all.
So far we have only had hints as to how Carney might play his hand. In this country, at any rate, he remains a largely unknown quantity. The new Governor's combined pay and perks, at £874,000 a year, will be more than six times what Osborne earns as Chancellor. Let’s hope that he turns out to be six times as good.