George Osborne in Manchester
Under the austerity programme government spending on infrastructure was reducedGetty

In the interests of serious research, your intrepid correspondent went behind enemy lines yesterday (5 October) and visited the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

That there were lots of people outside the gates protesting about George Osborne's austerity programme had been well publicised. But as one of the few commentators who have been critical of the Chancellor's obsession with 'the deficit' and the way the 'cuts' have been administered, I was somewhat taken aback to find myself being jostled by noisy demonstrators .

I did not even have time to explain to them that I was on their side before I was rescued by the police and escorted into the conference area. Then it dawned on me: the media badge I was wearing was a very striking Conservative blue, and I had been taken for one of Osborne's supporters!

The police were admirable, as the force itself is subject to Osborne's cuts, and towards the end of last year the Police Federation invited me to speak at a conference on the subject. It was abundantly clear that they are deeply concerned about the impact of the cuts. Quite apart from concerns about rising crime, with cuts to social services more and more of society's problems are ending up at the doors of the police.

However, Osborne and his colleagues made sure that there was no shortage of police in attendance at their conference, where the principal preoccupations appeared to be the race to succeed David Cameron as leader and the push of so many eurosceptics to take the UK out of the European Union.

This rather distracted attention from the Chancellor's great coup, which was the announcement that he had persuaded my old friend Lord Adonis to head a new National Infrastructure Commission to galvanise the country into doing something about our creaking public transport.

As Osborne proudly pointed out, Lord Adonis is a former Labour Transport Secretary. Furthermore, it was Adonis's idea to set up such a Commission in the first place - indeed it was in the Labour election manifesto.

Well, we all know what happened in that election - and subsequently to the Labour leadership. Personally I was much impressed at Labour's Conference the previous week by Jeremy Corbyn's shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who came across as someone who was not a 'deficit denier' but who equally did not believe in the need for all these 'cuts'.

But back to our infrastructure - yes, it is a good idea to invite one of the country's leading experts to chair this new Commission; and yes, we need a lot of work on our infrastructure. On the opening day of the Labour Conference there was a replacement rail service in operation on the London to Brighton line (i.e. buses) and my train to Manchester yesterday was so overcrowded that people were sitting outside the lavatories with their laptops.

But who should have the temerity yesterday to proclaim "the way this country is run is broken" but the Chancellor of a government that has already been in office for over five years!

Under the austerity programme, government spending on infrastructure was actually reduced. Interest rates were at rock bottom but no advantage was taken of this. The setting up of the Infrastructure Commission is good news. But five years have been wasted on account of a doctrinal obsession with not borrowing. I am not making this up!


William Keegan is a journalist, academic, and the senior economics commentator at The Observer. He has published his latest work – Mr Osborne's Economic Experiment - Austerity 1945-51 and 2010 (published by Searching Finance).