Osborne loses rag over BBC’s ‘Orwellian’ view of cuts

And Clegg’s absence suggests there may be no second coalition if Tories can pull off election victory

BBC Broadcasting House
(Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

George Osborne lost his temper in a tetchy interview with John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme and accused the BBC of unfairly inventing an Orwellian vision of a broken Britain because of the swingeing public expenditure cuts that will have to be imposed in the next Parliament.

Osborne was furious because Norman Smith, the BBC's assistant political editor, in a Radio 4 report broadcast earlier today, had described the scale of the cuts proposed by Osborne as "utterly terrifying".

After the Office for Budget Responsibility warned yesterday that public spending will have to fall to just 35 per cent of GDP in 2019-20 – as low as it was in the 1930s - Smith said: "That is an extraordinary concept. You are back to the land of The Road To Wigan Pier [George Orwell's account of cloth-cap working-class misery in the Northwest of England, published in 1937]."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Osborne responded: “That is such nonsense and I would have thought the BBC would have learned from the past four years that its total hyperbolic reporting of spending cuts has not been matched by what has actually happened.

“We had all that when you interviewed me four years ago. Has the world fallen in? No - and the deficit is half what it was,” Osborne went on. He said the BBC had warned in 2010 that 20 per cent cuts in the police budget would lead to a crime wave – and yet crime has gone down.

The Chancellor was in a lousy mood after the sunny headlines for yesterday’s Autumn Statement – with its stamp duty reform and other modest giveaways - began to unravel within hours of it being delivered.

Osborne admitted to Humphrys that “difficult” decisions on welfare would include freezing working age benefits for two years and lowering the welfare cap on spending from £26,000 for a family each year on benefits to a maximum of £23,000. But he remained adamant that the outlook was not as grim as Humphrys was making out.

Clearly stung by the Chancellor’s tongue-lashing, the presenter turned to the BBC political editor, Nick Robinson and said: “He is very cross about the BBC.”

Robinson replied: “He is cross because he thinks it’s a case of Back to the Future. He is remembering the arguments before the elections.”

The BBC isn’t Osborne’s only enemy this morning: he is also riled by the opposition to his economic strategy from the Tories’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Osborne’s aides were spreading the word last night that Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg won’t sit alongside David Cameron any more, after making it clear he thinks the cuts should fall on the rich and not “on the backs of the working age poor”.

The speculation was strengthened by Clegg’s bizarre decision to go campaigning in the South West yesterday, thus appearing to boycott the Autumn Statement in the Commons.

The Telegraph ‘s interpretation of his absence has been denied by Clegg’s aides this morning and you can expect to see the Deputy Prime Minister’s bottom firmly parked on the front bench at the earliest opportunity.

The Times quotes a source saying: "He'll be at PMQs next week. Nick decided to go out to the country yesterday to talk to the public in the South West about what the statement means for them, rather than sit in silence in the House of Commons. We are always told politicians should spend more time outside of Westminster and Nick was doing just that.”

If you believe that, you’ll believe in anything. There is clearly a revolt going on inside the Lib Dem hierarchy over the extent of the cuts which the Lib Dems are being asked to sign up to. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, reportedly “erupted” against fellow Lib Dem Cabinet minister Danny Alexander for accepting Tory spending cuts.

Alexander appears to have gone native at the Treasury, chatting to Cameron on the front bench while Osborne gave his statement yesterday and merrily telling Newsnight that the future cuts could be as high as £30bn (though the IFS reckons they could be double that).

Osborne’s temper tantrum on the Today programme raises the question: Is the coalition government beginning to break apart? And if the Tories find themselves in the same position as 2010 after the upcoming election, will the Lib Dems refuse to partner them again?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was edited post-publication to make it clear that it was the BBC's Norman Smith who first made the Road to Wigan Pier observation.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

is the pseudonym for a London-based political consultant who writes exclusively for The Week.co.uk.