There is a Civil War brewing. No I’m not referring to Yemen, Ukraine, the U.S or even the upcoming antics of Captain America. I’m referring to a Civil War over a quantitative expression of a plan for a defined period of time – better known as a budget.
Federal budgets are those funny things in politics that have the power to destroy – or further solidify – the career of the Chosen One that hands it down. A memorable budget is usually characterised by an image, a particular event, or a symbol. Take the example of the Abbott Government’s much-maligned 2014 budget, personified so eloquently in the grainy footage of then-Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann huffing down Cuban cigars. He was henceforth disparagingly referred to as ‘Smokin’ Joe‘, and his career prospects tanked along with the budget. The man many thought might be our future Prime Minister was undid by a shitty budget and a grainy long-range image of smoke and opulence in an ‘age of austerity’.
Over in the Mother Country of England, thankfully for their pollies the budget comes pre-packaged with a media-friendly image. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (their convoluted way of saying Treasurer) gets to don a freshly pressed suit, do his ‘air, and put on a big cheesy grin whilst he holds up what can only be assumed is his lunchbox. Also, when presenting his budget speech in the House of Commons, he’s entitled to drink whatever he wants! Another fantastic opportunity to sell your personality – something that Treasurers around the world tend to lack. Sadly in the case of the current Chancellor George Osbourne he’s about as fun as a barrel of monkeys that have been heavily sedated, and goes with a stiff glass of tap-water. Why wouldn’t you go with an Aberfeldy 21 malt scotch or a piña colada or… anything other than water? I digress…
Like a spoilt school-boy whose mother has splashed out on the fanciest sandwich holder for her ‘favourite’ son, the Chosen One who possesses the handled red-square is deemed the envy and centre of attention at the playground (or press offices’) for the rest of the day in the UK. The political paparazzi love this moment right out the front of 10 Downing Street, and the Chancellor loves it just as much. For that ever-so-brief moment in time, the mass media and the bloke-with-the-box work in unison to let their countrymen know this – there’s something in there.
Commonly referred to as the Budget Box, the tradition provides a photoshoot and a platform for the Chancellor to announce the party’s annual budget plans. Unlike the case we have here in the Land of Oz – where an image like that of a cigar-chomping Treasurer has the ability to piss all over the Government’s crafted spiel – the Chancellor starts off firmly in control with a smiley image to help sell his message. However, the budget the current Chancellor of the Exchequer dropped last week didn’t exactly go to plan…
You see, he did that thing that Tories love to do – provide the wealthy with tax cuts whilst stripping benefits from the poor, needy and disabled. With a completely straight face, he tends to refer to such moves as ‘compassionate conservatism’. He also chucked in a ‘tax on sugary drinks‘ to give the bottom-feeders in England’s world-famous tabloids something to nibble on whilst he played Robin Hood in reverse. But the script didn’t go to plan…
Iain Duncan Smith (or simply IDS as many refer to him) – one of the governments’ most senior ministers – used this opportunity to quit his battered and slashed Disability portfolio, and thus undermine the Chancellor and PM. In one foul swoop, he ditched his political counterparts and came out in favour of the UK leaving the Eurozone. IDS is like our Smokin’ Joe in many ways. A sound, experienced minister who once had bucket loads of potential – and whom, like Joe, many predicted would be PM one day. It wasn’t to be. Although (until recently) he sat on the front-bench, deep down IDS must have thought he had more potential. But how could he show his frustration? Well, that’s where another stalwart of the Conservative party comes into play.
A week before the budget, the ‘mayor with the mop’ – Boris Johnson – came out against Britain staying in the Eurozone too. In fact, supposedly he informed Cameron only nine minutes before the press conference – via text – that he was breaking ranks. The man many consider to be the future PM of the UK broke party ranks and argued that England had more to benefit from leaving the Eurozone. The Conservative script advocating European integration was tossed, and a new grand narrative was espoused by the brash Mayor of London. This factoid is important, because the UK will be having a referendum in June on this very issue. It will no-doubt have long-lasting repercussions whichever way the votes goes – affecting issues from trade, to migration, defence and everything in between. Even our Aussie politicians are getting a little freaked out about the whole thing.
So here’s where it gets interesting. Both Boris Johnson and IDS have spoken out in support of Britain staying in Europe – on numerous occasions. In the not-too-distant past, Johnson has said things like:
The trouble is, I’m not an outer.
He also stated that he would be ‘well up for trying to make the positive case’. Only three weeks ago he wrote this gem for one of Britain’s national papers:
It is also true that the single market is of considerable value to many UK companies and consumers, and that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc – that have nothing to do with Europe.
So why the change of heart? Because at the end of the day, politics trumps ideology. Despite the Conservatives’ resounding win just last year, eight years of austerity is taking its toll on the patience of everyday Britons. Every misjudged and mishandled happening – from the floods up in Cumbria over Christmas, to the shutting down of the steelworks in Wales this week – weakens the figureheads of the party and overall unison within the party ranks. These ‘undesirable’ events take chinks out of the already battered armour of Cameron and Osbourne. Johnson and IDS can smell blood in the water, and are setting themselves up accordingly. They know it’s a long-shot (the polls indicate that Britain will vote to stay in the Eurozone) but they know if they set themselves up as the mainstream voice of disgruntled Eurosceptics they can ultimately win big. If the vote passes in the affirmative for secession from Europe they can well and truly capitalise on the momentum, with recent polling indicating that half of all Britons think Cameron should resign if Brexit goes ahead. It’s a winner takes all scenario, and the battlelines are already being drawn with more than 3 months until the vote is set to take place.
The Civil War has begun. In the aftermath of Brexit, if we were to ask what the casus belli of this ‘war’ was, we may be inclined to say it started with a budget… and a briefcase. And a stiff glass of tap-water.