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George Osborne: Horseman of the Apocalypse or Don Quixote?

"The long-term economic plan is working" is one of George Osborne's best known soundbites. Is that the same Chancellor who has been predicting economic doomsday if Britain leaves the European Union (EU) with the same conviction as a sword-wielding harbinger of the Apocalypse? Britain would be "permanently poorer", Osborne cried, with each household £4,300 worse off. House prices could fall by nearly 20 percent (but mortgage costs would rise). A year of "DIY recession" would ensue.

You cannot help wondering just what happened to the Chancellor's long-term plan. That plan was a cornerstone of the Conservative 2015 election campaign and his constant refrain ever since. Just weeks ago, delivering his 2016 Budget, he spoke of "an economy set to grow faster than any other major advanced economy in the world".

Only now is he telling us that this success is entirely contingent on EU membership. Osborne seems to have got rather carried away in his bid to stop a Brexit. In all the excitement of announcing headline-grabbing numbers he seems to forget the odd fact. As a consequence, he is starting to look more like the would-be knight errant Don Quixote than the bearer of the scroll of seven seals he would have us believe.

Osborne's rhetoric romances that Britain is completely dependent on the EU, economically as well as politically. Yet, the underlying numbers the Chancellor uses to back up his points are plain wrong – the EU economy is arguably dependent on Britain. Analysing his claims on the costs of Brexit, one commentator spoke of a "simply breath-taking" dishonesty. The Treasury Select Committee chaired by Andrew Tyrie has highlighted real concerns about Osborne's use of figures, describing the £4,300-worse-off statistic as a "mistaken assertion".


Alarm bells ringing

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne tours the Britvic manufacturing plant near Leeds in northern England April 1, 2015.
Leon Neal/pool | Reuters
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne tours the Britvic manufacturing plant near Leeds in northern England April 1, 2015.

There is more. We have not yet left the EU or made the decision on whether or not to do so but the future of the UK economy is already uncertain. Growth has stagnated in the second quarter of this year. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has just slashed its forecasts for UK growth this year, suggesting Osborne's plan may not be working so well after all. The horseman of the apocalypse is starting to look like a rather less credible messenger trotting through the dust on his donkey, picking fights with windmills.

Alarm bells are even ringing for those of us who agree that the EU can be a force for good. For me, a moderate Remain supporter, the prophecies of doom and gloom have hardly had the effect Osborne hoped for. As a British citizen, I'm bored of the scaremongering, I have – as the saying goes – no need to keep hold of our Chancellor nurse for fear of something worse. With the best will in the world, I cannot trust our Chancellor's sums as a businessman or support the economic polices founded on Number 11's horror stories as a political activist. His cavalier approach to facts has already done real damage to the credibility of our Treasury.

This is not just my view – plenty of other leading businessmen supporting our party are getting tired of the Chancellor's propaganda. The business community worshipped Osborne when he first came into office. As they saw him in action, this transformed into disappointment and scepticism towards his "long-term economic plan."

Now all the threats are having about as much effect as the hidalgo's chase of the chivalric dream. Voters are bored and unconvinced. Even those of us on the Remain side are tempted to look elsewhere for common sense and real drive. That can actually come from the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson is still the politician who has shown he can connect with people outside the Westminster bubble and has a star quality few politicians or even celebrities can match.


Restoring unity

With all the tales of post-Brexit woe, it is a wonder too that Mr Osborne has not yet scared off the very partners he wants to whom he needs to stay close .Is it just a matter of time until European leaders start asking themselves why they need a Britain whose economy is worth so little outside the EU?

June 23 is fast approaching and the decision will certainly be a pivotal one for Britain. However, we must still keep our eye on the bigger picture and look beyond the vote.

Whatever the outcome – even though I hope it is Remain – restoring unity to the country and to the Conservative party will be vital after the referendum. The hardest part of all is likely to be restoring faith in our economic policy after the "long-term economic plan" has become an essentially meaningless phrase, little more than a joke.

We need a shared vision for the future as well as confidence that it is achievable and realistic. Businesspeople who will ultimately drive our growth forward need to feel the government knows what it is doing on the economy. For that, we need reliable figures from the Treasury and a Chancellor who can be trusted. There are people in our party – be it Michael Gove and Liam Fox on the Leave side or Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon on the Remain campaign – who have demonstrated real clarity of purpose without ever falling for financial fantasies. Any one of them could be better-placed to restore faith in our economic future.

In short, it is time to put an end to the politics of scare-mongering and focus on developing a truly credible economic plan. Britain deserves better.

Alexander Temerko is a British energy industrialist, politician and leading Conservative Party donor.


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