It was George Osborne’s genius that he was able to make a virtue of his chosen vice.
For a man who ideologically desires austerity - but who is smart enough to understand that the public do not share that desire - the global financial crisis was a gift. He could - with a sad and sombre mask to hide his glee - slash away at public services and heap the blame on the Labour Party.
It worked. I mean, it didn’t work for the economy - twelve years of stagnant growth will tell you that. But it worked for the Conservative Party. In 2015, despite everything, it won them a majority.
The question today is, can Jeremy Hunt pull off the same trick? Can he convince the public that - in the words of Rachel Reeves - ‘the invoice for economic carnage’ is a) not the fault of his party and b) a bill that only his party can be trusted to pay?
The polls do not favour Hunt’s chances. The public was already pretty certain about who is to blame for the catastrophic mess in which we find ourselves. And that is before the effects of this Autumn Statement have begun to be felt; before energy bill support begins to be withdrawn for many, before the recession fully bites, before people notice that they are being dragged into higher rates of tax at a lower threshold than before.
But Hunt’s gamble - and he has to gamble, his predecessor handcuffed him to the roulette wheel on his way out of Number 11 - is that voters will trust the Tories to be cruel. They may not be liked or loved or invited in for a cup of tea but his party is, at least, understood to be capable of gritting its teeth and hacking back spending.
And if he gets the framing right, so Hunt believes, he can present this as the choice come 2024. ‘With us we can finish the job of cleaning up the mess we made, with Labour you’ll be back to square one’. Maybe. But, then again, anyone with the bad luck of having to visit A&E this winter might well begin to question the idea that what matters most is the belated fiscal discipline of the Conservative Party.
Squeezed between collapsing public services and rising taxes, voters are being asked to believe that bitter medicine is once again the prescription they need. But people are beginning to ask whether it might be the snake oil that was making them sick in the first place.