Osborne’s smoke and mirrors

The line coming from Tory party headquarters this afternoon is that Osborne has emerged from a finance ministers’ meeting with a great victory for Britain. The UK’s additional contribution to the EU budget has, he says, been not only delayed but also halved.

Well, time to set a few things straight:

  1. The supposed ‘reduction’ that Osborne boasts about is not a reduction at all. The UK always gets a rebate on its EU budget contributions. The figure the government quoted last week, £1.2bn, did not take into account our rebate. The new figure, £850m, does. That’s the only difference.
  2. In fact, a more cynical observer than I might even wonder whether the government’s announcement last week deliberately ‘overlooked’ the rebate, purely so that it could be trotted out today as a victory.
  3. According to several reliable accounts (including the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt), the issue was not even discussed at the meeting of finance ministers. Osborne simply timed his ‘announcement’ to give the impression that it was.
  4. Even if Osborne had actually achieved what he claimed, he would only have been unpicking a mess entirely of the government’s own making. We now have good evidence that this surcharge wasn’t suddenly dropped on us a week ago. The government knew at least as long ago as May that the recalculation which UK officials had already agreed was likely to have this kind of consequence. Feigned shock last week, and feigned triumph today, should both be taken with an enormous pinch of salt.

I’d like to say that Osborne’s smoke and mirrors are fooling nobody. But sadly he does seem to have taken in a few journalists — and even some pro-Europeans.

Of course, the over-inflated rhetoric of the past week has been helpful to nobody. It’s good that the incoming budget commissioner has agreed to look at how future recalculations are handled, to try to avoid another mess like this.

But the problem with applauding this supposed ‘victory’ by Cameron and Osborne is that their entire approach has been wrong from the start. First they were caught napping; then they resorted to angry posturing for the benefit of the British media; then they pulled a fast one so they could claim to be the saviours of the national interest. And that’s the charitable interpretation!

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