Despite the decisive message delivered by voters at the last two by-elections, the Government doesn’t seem to have noticed that the people don’t believe a word they say.
With pre-election pledges – most notably on immigration – now downgraded to to aspirations, and endless empty threats to curtail the powers of the EU, the Coalition has a serious credibility problem.
So what does the Chancellor do to convince us that he really will end the budget deficit?
He’s going to pass a law against it.
As government debt inconveniently continues to increase, George Osborne hopes that a promise to balance the books in one financial year, several years ahead, will prove his fiscal competence and distract us from the fact that debt interest will still be the third biggest item of annual expenditure.
And in a nakedly political bid to embarrass Labour’s Ed Balls, Mr Osborne has announced that his promise will be enshrined in law.
It’s a classic Osborne manoeuvre. But while it may briefly make life difficult for the Labour Opposition, as they decide how to respond, it will do nothing to enhance the Government’s credibility.
As Gordon Brown repeatedly proved, the Treasury is more than capable of tweaking the figures to meet self-imposed rules, and putting the rules into law won’t change that – if the Law of Osborne is in danger of being broken (always supposing the Chancellor’s party is in power after the next election, itself a very moot point) then no doubt a few columns can be moved around in the national accounts and a few spending items can be redefined, to magic away the uncomfortable truth.
Ed Balls may be ham-fisted as well as fiscally irresponsible, but he’s not stupid. Before the Law of Osborne is presented to the House of Commons, he may well come up with his own sleight of hand to outwit the Chancellor.
And even if he doesn’t, will the public really care? In fact it’s rather hard to see the point of this exercise at all – economic commentators won’t be fooled, and Joe Public will neither notice nor care.
The time has surely come to set aside the political chess games and ask the voters to judge the Government on its achievements. Or is George Osborne worried that they might in fact do just that?