Osborne's pick for OBR chief is brave
Published 10/09/2010 | 08:00
Poacher turned gamekeeper? In appointing Robert Chote, the director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, as the new head of the Office of Budget Responsibility, George Osborne is neatly eliminating one of the most effective critics of economic policy.
No longer will Mr Chote embarrass chancellors by describing their plans as "clearly regressive" - his verdict on Mr Osborne's emergency Budget.
Better to have Mr Chote inside the tent, the Chancellor has clearly concluded, but he is taking a risk. The track record of the IFS director, who is a polished media performer, suggests he is unlikely to be shy in coming forward if he disagrees with Mr Osborne, and his forecasts are likely to be scrupulously independent.
Isn't that the whole point of the OBR, you might ask - to hold the Treasury to account with impartial economic forecasts and regular updates on the Chancellor's progress in meeting his promises on cutting the deficit? Well, yes. But the behaviour of Mr Osborne since his arrival at Number 11 has rather conveyed the impression that he was keener on the principle of the OBR than the practice.
Indeed, Mr Chote cannot fail to have noticed the shabby treatment meted out to Sir Alan Budd, his predecessor. It may be that one reason the Treasury failed to make it clear that Sir Alan had always insisted he would only serve a three-month term at the OBR, getting it up and running before handing over to a permanent director, was that it hoped to persuade him to stay on.
But that hope was dashed and the announcement of Sir Alan's departure took people by surprise when it shouldn't have, prompting gossip that he had been forced out.
Then there was the episode of the unemployment forecasts, in which David Cameron embarrassed Sir Alan by misusing the OBR's figures for political ends. When he had the nerve to complain in public, the whispers behind his back began.
Set in this context, Mr Chote, who is likely to prove more of a match for Mr Osborne, is indeed a brave choice for the OBR job. It is a necessary one, however.
Having so quickly undermined the credibility of a policy initiative that has such genuine merit, the Chancellor had to decide whether to rescue the OBR with a convincing appointment, or bury it with a weak candidate.
In Mr Chote, he has opted for the former.