Two political takes on the Autumn Statement

Two strategists discuss the implications of George Osborne's Autumn Statement from a comms perspective.

Nick Faith (left) and Nick Williams (right) discuss the Autumn Statement
Nick Faith (left) and Nick Williams (right) discuss the Autumn Statement
Nick Williams
No new government money to hand out ahead of the election? Negative news to spin having failed to meet the deficit reduction targets in this Parliament? A need to draw a line under immigration and the EU?

No need to worry. Despite all these seemingly challenging political issues, the Conservative leadership have managed to pull off an impressive week in communications. 

Over the past six days there has been a massive play by the Conservative leadership – all part of the Lynton Crosby Campaign Play Book – to both shift the terms of the debate and to seek to control it ahead of the election. 

Having drawn a line with David Cameron’s immigration speech last Friday, the task was to move the debate on to the key election theme – the economy and "staying the course" to ensure that the economy continues to improve and the deficit is fully addressed – and how an improved economy would allow key concerns (NHS, infrastructure etc) to be paid for.  

Over the past days we have seen a highly effective and highly co-ordinated Conservative election campaign communications effort with controlled leaks of many of the Autumn Statement themes: first the attempt to blunt Labour’s leading issue with the announcement over additional NHS funding, followed swiftly by announcements on roads, wider infrastructure and flooding.  

In reality, most of these were just re-announcements; the key new differentiator being where in the country the money will be spent. 

On closer analysis, where the money will be spent, surprisingly, seems to match some of the key marginal battlegrounds. 

Never in a week have we seen the Conservative Party machine so slick: Cameron at Stonehenge, Cameron on ITV’s Text Santa Christmas charity appeal programme, Cameron at a transport depot. 

This highly impressive dominance of the political and news agenda since last weekend will be seen as a turning point in the Conservative Party election strategy; a time when they put behind them the issues that have dogged them repeatedly.  

Labour’s response was reactive and unco-ordinated. It will have hardly made a dent on the public.
The culmination has been the Autumn Statement itself. 

A very political Chancellor presented a very political Autumn Statement.

We may "all be in it together", as the Chancellor repeated again, but he also ensured that those groups which the Conservative Party needed to win back were actively targeted – and all done in the name of aspiration, a very Thatcherite concept to appeal to people’s individual hopes and desires and a real counter to the UKIP appeal.

The aspirational theme was clearly shown in the Chancellor’s set piece announcement – one of the very few to be kept back for the Autumn Statement itself in order to maximize its impact – the total reform of Stamp Duty to assist "98 per cent of homeowners".  

This was supported by other measures to assist lower earners and a whole coalition of interested parties, ranging from support for Gurkhas, air passenger duty for children, and aid workers killed in the course of duty. 

All paid for by banks, tax avoiders and public sector cuts.

It was an impressive week in Conservative campaign communications and a highly effective Autumn Statement. 

Cameron and Osborne can be a class political double act and this has been clearly shown over the past week.
Nick Williams is head of public affairs at FleishmanHillard

Nick Faith
"It’s the economy, stupid." James Carville’s words still ring as true today as they did when he was advising Bill Clinton back in 1992. 

Any political strategist worth half their salt knows that a party has to focus on its strengths and expose the opposition’s weaknesses.

Fortunately for George Osborne and the Conservatives they have consistently led the polls on the single most important question; who the public trusts to best manage the public finances.  

After the distraction of the Prime Minister’s speech on immigration, the Chancellor today steered the ship back into safer waters with a speech that was full of political goodies. 

Forget about pulling rabbits out of hats, Osborne sawed Labour’s mansion tax in half with a complete and immediate overhaul of Stamp Duty. 

Under the new proposals anyone trying to buy a home worth less than £937,500 will find it cheaper to move house. 

There were also sweeteners for the grey vote in the form of a removal of the ‘death tax’ on ISAs as well as for employers with a National Insurance exemption on apprentices. 

These costs will be offset by stricter rules on tax avoiders. 

Armies of lawyers and accountants will be burning the midnight oil trying to work out the detail behind the new ‘Diverted Profits Tax’ to counter the use of aggressive tax planning.

While the speech was politically astute, it failed to address the rather large elephant in the room: how a future government will balance the books by the end of the next Parliament.

Whoever forms the next government will have to find billions of pounds of savings. 

Where the axe falls – and whether taxes should be raised – will be open to debate, but if the deficit is to be eliminated before 2020, expect to see significant freezes to working age benefits. 

Osborne has already earmarked £12bn of welfare savings.
Labour has actually given, by far, the longest and most detailed list of policy commitments. 

As it stands, the majority of their proposed savings, such as the mansion tax or reductions in pension tax relief, have gone on equal and opposite new commitments such as higher spending on the NHS, a freeze in business rates, the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee and the new 10p rate of income tax.

Many of the proposed savings from the Liberal Democrats, such as means testing Winter Fuel Allowance or scrapping the Married Couples Allowance, have already been spent on other giveaways.

The US political strategist, Jim Messina, recently told a group of Conservative MPs that they had 104 minutes to win over the electorate.

Apparently the public spends four minutes a week tuned into politics and as there were 26 weeks to go before the election, there was just over an hour and a half for politicians to deliver their core message.

That message is simple for the Conservatives. 

The economy is picking up so don’t give the keys back to the guys who crashed the car. 

The one caveat is at some point the Chancellor will have to lift up the bonnet of his own vehicle and reveal how exactly he will balance the books by the end of the next Parliament.
Nick Faith is co-founder of the Westminster Policy Institute

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