Branded a ‘fizzy rascal’, Osborne’s latest headline-grabber shows a politician truly cannot win

Watching chancellors deliver budgets – as I have done on and off in the Commons press gallery since Denis Healey delivered several a year during the turbulent 70s – I often play the game of wondering which angle the predatory Tory tabloids will focus on next morning. Will it be the one the Treasury itself predicted, or even designed for that purpose?

It can all go horribly wrong, of course. Who can recall the “pasty tax” without a shudder? But this year the sugar tax on soft drinks was the obvious eye-catcher.

When the ‘Brexit will help save the NHS’ campaign starts, remember whose side the redtop sugar barons were on

Outside the Commons chamber, I watched George Osborne’s numbers man briefing the reptiles and rattling off the names of famous drinks likely to be caught hardest by the 8g of sugar per 100ml formula. They include “healthy” cranberry juice if it has added sugar. Among those at his side was Sue Beeby, ex-special adviser (spad) to Jeremy Hunt, promoted to the Treasury spad posse last summer.

Surely the sugar tax would be welcomed as an overdue effort to curb a self-harming bad habit of the poorest in our community? Surely public-spending-sensitive tabloids would embrace even a modest assault on what the King’s Fund has taken to calling a “cluster lifestyle” that includes smoking, poor diet and exercise and excessive drinking? All are big ticket budget items for the embattled NHS and bad for many of their readers.

Even to pose the question is to invite a no. The gloom-and-doom Mail is pro-sugar tax, so it printed Jamie Oliver’s V-for-victory wave, albeit alongside a headline that trumpeted a £500m bill and share price dip for the soft drink firms.

But the Sun condemned the “fizzy rascal” chancellor for hurting the poor’s soft drink budgets, while helping the “rich” with revised tax bands. Truly a politician cannot win. But when the “Brexit will help save the NHS” campaign starts (it’s due), remember whose side the redtop sugar barons were on.

Little mention of the NHS

As HSJ was quick to spot, the other main health angle in Osborne’s eighth’s budget was the £2bn imposition he placed on employers to shore up public sector pensions, much of it on NHS employers who are already struggling with over-committed budgets. Perhaps that’s why the chancellor made no use of the NHS to promote the official narrative of the day, one which “puts the next generation first”.

Health barely got a mention, he couldn’t say anything positive (“A&E waiting times are growing”?), so sensibly said almost nothing, not even “ringfenced”. At 0.9 per cent growth a year, its budget is not being ringfenced as assorted demand pressure rise, the pretence is threadbare.

I’m all for strong narrative themes; good leaders work to establish their public character and style to reinforce each other and provide cover. Once established as an “Iron Lady”, a leader can be much more flexible. This chancellor has little such credit to draw on except in the sense that he has consistently preached austerity, while not always practising it.

So far, this strand of narrative has satisfied the financial markets, which keep over-borrowed Britain afloat, but market indulgence may not survive a Brexit majority. That really would drive a Japanese-style post-earthquake tsunami towards the NHS.

The new pasty tax?

In reality, Osborne has consistently borrowed much more than he promised and failed to meet two of the three targets (reducing the debt as a percentage of GDP and his own welfare cap) he foolishly put into law to embarrass Labour. That’s fine by me, if markets will wear it. The economy needs government-driven demand to keep it afloat when other sources are flagging, from here to China.

But offering savings incentives (lifetime Isas) and modest help with house buying to the “next generation” young is easily offset by other budget changes, not least additional burdens placed on local councils and the NHS, chancellor Osborne’s “living wage” commitment, higher national insurance charges, that impost on the disability budget which already seems to be unsettling Tory MPs as well as Jeremy Corbyn. Is it this season’s “pasty tax” gaffe?

Every budget has its good points. Osborne takes the obesity issue seriously (and had Hunt’s support, as he might not Andrew Lansley’s), enough to study the data and accept that a tax on producers and importers (check the Hungarian evidence) would work better than a price hike on consumers, the Mexican option.

The approach is working for salt content and allows food makers two years to reformulate content, bottle/can size and marketing, which includes – I am surprised to learn – control of the prominence given to various products in display cabinets.

That all sounds okay. A pity, then, that “cluster lifestyle” will not be changed by higher taxes on beer and fags, let alone on ever-cheaper petrol and diesel’s nitrogen oxide fumes – all sensitive tabloid fare. Strange, too, that smoke-and-mirror chancellors like Osborne and Brown talk of heroic sacrifice and giveaways in the same breath, both usually pretty phoney. More honesty please.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian