With the UK still emerging from recession, the economy is set to take centre stage in the upcoming general election. And, while the economist in me knows it would not be pretty, I am intrigued by the possibility that we may get a hung parliament – and possibly the first coalition government since the 1970s.
How on earth has David Cameron let it come to this? I am no political commentator, but I am a classic swing voter – I have voted for several major political parties during my lifetime and the Lib Dems too. And I can't help wondering if there is one big thing stopping the Tories from sweeping effortlessly to power. George Osborne.
The shadow chancellor is a controversial figure in the City. In particular, opinion is divided as to whether he is dangerously inept or just nuts. Osborne seems a nice enough chap, and is probably an able politician – you don't make it to the front benches for nothing, especially given the Deripaska affair. But he appears to have all the deep economic understanding of a small lettuce ('Iceberg, dead ahead!' has been heard in some less charitable parts of the Square Mile). This characteristic has been exposed by several rubbish decisions, most notably opposing the nationalisation of Northern Rock and government bank bail outs – he would have let the banking sector collapse instead. Other mistakes include championing the notion that long-term interest rates are currently restraining recovery (they're not), spurious mumblings about death taxes being inefficient and unfair (far from it), and criticising the government's planned efficiency savings before, five minutes later, relying on them for your policies.
Perhaps most worryingly, even when he has a sensible idea, Osborne finds a way to muck it up. The idea that the MPC will keep policy looser for longer, if the next government tightens fiscal policy more rapidly, is not daft. But the last thing a prospective Chancellor of the Exchequer should do is talk about working 'hand in hand' with the BoE. Independence is not just a long word, George. You just don't say these things. There have even been occasional signs of contagion among the rest of the shadow cabinet – such as when Cameron himself made a frankly stupid remark about printing money last autumn.
This catalogue of c*ck-ups just reinforces the perception that Osborne doesn't really know what he's doing. He certainly lost the Chancellors' debate on Channel 4 this week – and what points he did score were political, not economic. Maybe I'm just too much of a technocrat at heart – but I'd prefer to have an expert setting taxes and making spending decisions. Fundamentally, Osborne does not get economics. And, unfortunately, he raises one very big question about Cameron: do I really want to vote for someone who puts an old friendship ahead of what's best for the country?
Ditch the lettuce, Dave – and you'll get my vote.