Spending review 2015: Osborne's tricks – and how to spot them

If by some freakish series of accidents you found yourself watching George Osborne deliver the spending review this afternoon, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Britain has never had it so good. The chancellor seemed relaxed, even jubilant. Almost everything he said involved spending. The bad old days of austerity and Greek-style chaos were over. Once again, sunshine ruled the day.

Which is odd, because he was actually unveiling a plan to slash public spending. The cuts are so severe, in fact, that by 2020 departmental budgets will be at 50% of where they were when the Tories entered power in 2010. The cuts will be worth £12.2 billion a year by 2019/20. Oh and there'll be £28.5 billion in tax increases too.

Partly, this is just how things are done. The chancellor gets up, announces all the good bits, then journalists go and read the small print of the document and see what's really going on. But Osborne also has tricks which are uniquely his own.

One: Ring-fence political risks

The first thing Osborne always does is ring-fence the budgets which might cause political problems down the line. That old stereotype about Osborne being a supremely political chancellor is entirely correct. Most of the decisions he makes during these events are politically, not economically, motivated.

So, for instance, pensions are protected, because older people are more likely to vote and more likely to vote Tory when they do. The NHS is protected, because Labour's most potent political attack is that – you can almost say it by heart – "you can't trust the Tories with the NHS". International aid is protected, because the Conservatives don't want to be seen as cold-hearted ideological saboteurs, but instead as moderate financial realists. 

That's also why Osborne has ended up protecting tax credits - which, surprisingly, he did a full-blooded 100% U-turn on – and the police budget. The anger from the Sun and that viral video of the crying Tory voter on Question Time showed how politically toxic it could be to cut tax credits for the working poor. And in the wake of Paris, it was clear the police would argue that cuts to their budget would increase the risk of a successful terror attack. That's just too much of a political risk to take, especially if one actually is successful. So suddenly, as if by magic, it was protected.

Two: Focus on totemic good-news stories

Osborne will look at each area of spending, put together a plan to improve a handful of items – ideally press-friendly symbolic issues or government policy with strong polling – and then make the entire debate about that.

In education, free schools will do fine while comprehensives will be hammered. In housing, affordable housing (NB: it's not really that affordable) will be expanded, but social housing looks to be gradually going extinct. On energy, about 24 million households will save about £30 a year on bills due to a cheaper domestic energy efficiency scheme – but the Department of Energy and Climate Change is losing 22% of its budget. London's transport infrastructure will be boosted by £11 billion, Oyster cards possibly rolled out nationwide and several rail lines will get funding for electrification – but the Department for Transport budget will be cut by 37%.

A classic example of this tactic came in the move on 'tampon tax'. This is a financially miniscule issue – it accounts for £15 million in VAT a year – but it's powerfully symbolic. As VAT is a tax on luxury items, the fact it is levied on sanitary products is (rightly) considered proof by many feminists that the economic system is created by, and run for, men. Osborne actually messed this one up a bit by comparing it with the Libor fines against banks, something which triggered waves of baffled anger among feminist commentators online. But the technique is the same as always: Take this press-friendly thing here, make the conversation about that, and meanwhile do all the real work when no-one is looking.

As our guest blog from Sisters Uncut said today, since the Tories came to power 32 specialist refuges for survivors of domestic violence have closed, 31% of women referred to refuges have been turned away due to lack of space and 39% of domestic violence victims have been unable to access legal aid. But don't worry about that. Look over there: shiny things.

The other example is tax credits. Following a tabloid backlash and a defeat in the Lords, Osborne said he was going to come back with new plans. As it happens, he abandoned the £1,300 cuts to tax credits altogether. It's not quite clear where the cost has fallen, but prizes for anyone who guesses that it'll be on housing benefit, universal credit and childcare eligibility. The working poor will still pay. But again, don't worry about it. Look over there at the shiny things.

The tax credit U-turn will lead most editions today. Osborne took that hit, knowing Labour wasn't strong enough to profit from it. By tomorrow we'll all be talking about David Cameron's fight to bomb Syria in the Commons. After that, the debate will be long gone. But the measures undertaken today will remain.

Three: Over-egg pre-briefings

Osborne's team have done a very good job of lowering expectations in the weeks ahead of the spending review. During this period, they tend to massage apprehension. They would have known for some time that they were planning a full U-turn on tax credits, but they were careful to suggest that Osborne would be pursuing something less than that. Even though Theresa May was late to No.11 with her budget plans, they also knew they'd save the police, but that was not the message earlier in the week. No matter how bad the situation, Osborne makes it look worse so what he eventually ends up doing will be seen as tolerable.

Four: Backload risk

Osborne's last trick is one you can only really achieve with a compliant media. He's loved and respected enough by the mostly Tory-supporting press establishment that no-one really holds him to account for the goals he himself sets. The deficit, you may remember, was already supposed to be gone. Actually, that was the entire message of the Tories 2010 election campaign. And yet here we still are, planning for the next half decade of deficit reduction.

Similarly, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said Osborne will breach his own welfare cap in three successive years from 2016 to 2019.

Osborne's current spending reduction plans are incredibly tight, despite the extra leeway given to him by a positive outlook from the OBR. That takes the power to deliver on his promises out of his hands. If there is an international slow-down, which there are already signs of, his timetable will suddenly be out of reach.

But it just doesn't matter. The Tories completely failed to balance the budget by 2015 and they got elected on a financial competence ticket anyway. Osborne doesn't care that he almost certainly won't be running a surplus by 2020. It's immaterial. The press is on his side, most of the political class is signed up to austerity and the opposition is a mess anyway.

So he can afford to use these big-ticket spending promises because the risk is back-loaded to four years' time, when no-one will care anyway. We have literally heard less about Osborne failing his own central economic targets than we have about Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich. Osborne knows that and uses it to his advantage.

Even when Britain's youth prisons improve, they fail

This is what improvement looks like in Britain's crumbling young offenders' estate: young boys not leaving their cells for 23 hours a day for fear of violence, widespread hunger and regular solitary confinement. Improvement is apparently a very low bar.

"Violence appears to be a fact of daily life in Feltham prison, and putting children into solitary confinement appears to be the management tool deployed in an attempt to contain it," Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says.

"We know about a 17-year-old who was segregated for eight days, being let out of his cell for only 30 minutes a day. He told our staff he didn't know why he was being held in solitary and he was sinking into depression.

"We know about another 17-year-old locked in his cell with no contact with any other children, and with no idea of what he had to do to get back to a normal regime.

"Yet another 17-year-old [has been] locked in his cell for two weeks and only allowed out for 30 minutes a day to have a shower and make one phone call. He had no education and told our lawyers he was getting very depressed.

"The bottom line is that children are not safe in Feltham."

And yet Feltham is an institution which is apparently improving. Today's report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons found that new de-escalation restraint techniques were making progress, there were incentives for good behaviour, staff acted courageously to protect boys from assault, body-worn cameras were having a positive effect and relationships between staff and boys were the best they have been for many years.

That is genuine improvement, but it's not reassuring. If this is what success looks like, then failure must be very grim indeed.

Thirty-seven per cent of the boys said they had been victimised. There were 209 violent incidents in the six months leading up to the inspection. One, captured on CCTV, saw a female officer being punched and kicked as she crouched over a boy who was being attacked. Between January and July, 49 officers had been injured and 40 assaults on staff had been referred to the police.

Segregation was still used regularly, with a "bleak and unsuitable" care and separation unit shared between children and young adults. On average, boys spent 19 hours a day locked up in their cell on weekdays and 20 hours on weekends. Some of the more frightened ones spent all the time they could in their cell. As the report noted, ominously, "boys complained that they were hungry".

In the last 12 months alone, the Howard League advice line has received 117 separate enquiries into the prison. Many callers complained about the lack of safety and high risk of violence in the prison. The charity is urging the Hounslow Safeguarding Children Board to conduct an inquiry into the widespread use of solitary confinement.

Feltham gives you some impression of how hopelessly counter-productive Britain's arrangements are for dealing with violent young men. No-one is having their issues dealt with while spending 20-hours a day in their cell. No-one can be put on the straight-and-narrow while escaping violence at 16. No violent offender can be helped while spending weeks on solitary confinement without knowing why or how to get out.

It is a hopeless way to treat young offenders, which does nothing but ensure they progress to become older offenders. Things are so bad, this despairing state of affairs actually constitutes genuine improvement.

No one 'banned' the Church of England ad – they're making it up

There is no ban on Christian advertising, just like there is no ban on people wearing crucifixes at work or whatever other bizarre fantasy the Church of England has come up with.

Here's what happened: A commercial agency decided a Church of England ad might upset paying customers going to the cinema so it decided not to take it. They did so, rather predictably given they are a commercial agency, for commercial reasons. Then the Church of England played an absolute blinder of a press strategy and got themselves on the front of the Mail, the Times and all over the BBC. Fair do's to them. If you're in PR, watch what Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, is doing and learn it. It's a great way of getting far more free advertising than you would ever have been able to pay for by putting your ad in a cinema.

The ad shows a variety of people from different walks of life praying and encouraging the viewer to do the same. It would not, one imagines, have been very effective. It's incredibly dusty and a bit odd. Whenever the church reaches out to the public it merely serves to highlight how distant it is from it and the ad largely complies with that trend.

The ad was given the green light by the Cinema Advertising Authority and the British Board of Film Classification. So it was not banned. This is worth repeating because the word 'ban' has been flung around with gusto over the last 24 hours. The decision not to take the ad came from Digital Cinema Media (DCM), which handles the advertising for Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, which make up the vast majority of UK cinemas. It was, in other words, a commercial, not a political or religious, decision.

DCM said it had received "considerable negative feedback from audiences" when it ran Yes and No campaign ads during the Scottish independence referendum. In a statement, it said it had a policy of not accepting any political or religious advertising in cinemas.

"Some advertisements - unintentionally or otherwise - could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith," it said. "In this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally".

You can think what you like about that statement. Personally, I don't like it. I hate the word 'offence', which is supremely slippery. People get offended about loads of nonsense, so cementing the word in a policy just makes it completely subjective and value-laden. That being said, my afternoon out to the cinema with some friends does not seem the ideal time to come preaching to me and I think I would have found the Just Pray ad completely baffling if it had come up ahead of Star Wars.

But regardless of my opinion of the policy, or anyone else's, that ad did not get banned. It fell foul of a policy, just as a non-religious ad would have done.

And that's not a thought experiment. Non-religious ads get rejected all the time. "We don't even think about it," Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), says. "It's a routine part of advertising buying. There was no chance the [Church of England] ad was ever going to be approved."

When the BHA tried to launch a photo competition for young people recently in photography magazines, a similar agency controlling lifestyle magazine advertising turned it down on the basis of the same policy. There were none of the howls of anguish which accompanied the Church of England decision. When their ad on ticking non-believer in the census was rejected by Transport for London, there was none of the outrage on the front pages of the newspapers as there is today.

Instead we've cranked up the Christian outrage machine once again. The cottage industry of people claiming the church is some poor victimised minority group, persecuted by an intolerant secular mainstream, is in for another good quarter of growth. Except of course that it is the most unthinkable rubbish. The establishment church is not some silenced minority. It has plenty of ways to get its message out, including through it's state-protected schools, it's state-protected peers in the Lords, it's state-protected position during moments of public ceremony, or even Thought for the Day. Religion is still given a pride of place in society which is completely at odds with the level of support it enjoys.

If anything, it only goes to show how powerful the church remains. Make a decision against a humanist organisation and it is unworthy of comment. Make it against the church and it's the end of free speech as we know it.

But there is one interesting thing about the response to the ad. It shows how the church has followed the debate on free speech and offence and managed to insert its own narrative into it. Suddenly it too is the victim of a thin-skinned, easily offended culture which is keen to surround itself in a safe space free from critical voices.

The wider attack on free speech is real. But this is not an example of it. This is just the church playing a particularly canny PR game in which it defines itself as the victim during any national debate which can be used to its advantage.

Latest entries