April 24 2014 Latest news:
Thursday, February 21, 2013
The pressure on George Osborne is building, writes Richard Porritt
There is now less than a month to go before the biggest day of his political life - the 2013 Budget will be a blockbuster whether it makes or breaks the chancellor.
Before his car-crash at the dispatch box last year Mr Osborne was seen as a potential future leader, a man with a plan who was willing to see it through.
Then came pasties, caravans and charities and so many U-turns even his opponents were left dizzy.
Now comes his crunch moment - but it is not just the chancellor that lives or dies on the contents of that famous red box.
Last year he came undone with short-term fixes - which is odd after setting out so many long-term plans for the economy in the first two years of his tenure. The thinking behind those decisions was the public was beginning to grow tired of the Government’s relentless austerity and steadfastness over sticking to Plan A. But the fact they exploded in his face with such ferocity should make him very wary of attempting any more Gordon Brown-like stunts.
The public welcome long-term plans they can believe in, and if Mr Osborne really does have no Plan B then now is the time to lay out the reasons why his initial plan is still the best and bolster it with more action instead of reassuring words alone.
Tinkering is not enough. He needs the thread of this speech to be bold, brave and brilliant.
Although his year since the omnishambles budget has been fraught, Mr Osborne has enjoyed some good moments - his reducing of corporation tax from 28% to just 21% is a spectacular achievement that will be noted by international business.
He has also managed to help millions of people - across the political, class and wealth spectrum - with the increase in personal tax allowance. The fact that it will be £9,440 by April is astonishing - but the Liberal Democrats need to take a great deal of praise for lobbying so hard on this.
Mr Osborne needs more high-yield, out-of-the-ball-park policy like this instead of fiddling with odds and ends.
Enter big projects.
East meets Westminster was interested to learn from a Number 10 source last week that the Government was in discussions with EDF about the potential of some public funding for its plans to build new nuclear reactors. This is tricky for the Government because David Cameron had promised that the public would not subsidise nuclear new build. But Sizewell C, on the Suffolk coast, and Hinkley Point, in Somerset, must not be allowed to fail.
Ensuring these projects happen is vital not only for the local areas and people - who will in time see the benefits, even if the time spent building the reactor may prove disruptive - but also for a country gripped by the threat of an energy crisis.
It remains unclear exactly what is being discussed in the meeting between EDF and the Government but the firm - in which the French taxpayer holds the majority stake - is no doubt looking for further assurances over the viability of building new reactors in Britain. Put your capitalist’s hat on and you would have to agree with EDF completely.
There have been attempts already to side-step state investment - which would have to be with money the UK clearly does not have - but the success rate thus far can only be described as so-so.
If the time has now come to dip a little further in to the state’s wallet then so be it.
And Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey agrees: “It is vital that these projects are successful for what they will bring to the area and beyond.”
Even those whose lives would be impacted by the Sizewell C plans can see the need for the plant. Debbi Tayler, of campaigners Four Villages Bypass Group, understands the importance of the plant. But she fears the current road system cannot hope.
“I am not against Sizewell C, I am worried about how EDF think they can increase the traffic though - through the building and beyond. Without bypassing the four worse affected villages this whole plan will be a disaster.”
The people of Marlesford, Little Glemham, Stratford St Andrew and Farnham have for too long suffered with large vehicles using a road which, in parts, is barely suitable for a tandem bicycle.
Of course not all the traffic is or will be EDF’s. But plenty will.
There must be a by-pass. And this is good news not just for the people of those villages but for all concerned - more building equals more work, equals the medicine that battles recessions.
If Mr Osborne does dip into his very tightly strung purse to persuade EDF not to turn their back on Sizewell and Hinkley he has to play hard-ball on the bypass. It is an open goal and he must not fire it over the bar - deep in the heart of true, blue Tory Suffolk heartland he has to reward the faithful.
And surely he will recognise that the scheme to improve that notorious stretch of the A12 - ignored time after time - is no bad thing.
March’s budget could be the perfect opportunity for Mr Osborne to annouce further big build projects around the stuttering energy market. The strain of recent winters and prolonged cold snaps has outlined the potential for the lights going out in the UK sooner than we may have thought.
Sizewell is part of plugging that hole but why stop there? The potential of renewables in East Anglia is great - this part of the country should be leading the way. And shale gas must not be ignored just because the green brigade has a bee in its bonnet about the dangers of fracking - the dangers of having no power are far worse. Something has to be done - and this poses the perfect opportunity for the chancellor to go for growth.
Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.