By Ray Fleming

GEORGE Osborne has been hogging the headlines in the past week with his previews of government cuts to come in the near future and his plans for consulting the general public on longer term changes in how the government spends its money. The immediate cuts include the withdrawal of free school meals from half a million of the poorest families in Britain -- a decision that does not exactly match David Cameron's recent assurance that everything possible would be done to protect the most vulnerable.

The public consultation idea is beginning to attract the attention it needs. On Tuesday Lord Lamont, one of Mr Osborne's Conservative predecessors as Chancellor, called it “Essentially a PR ploy”. I think he is right. The list of questions Mr Osborne wants to ask the public about government services include these: Is it essential? Must the government be involved? Does it make economic sense? Could it be cheaper? Could it be more effective? Could the private sector do it better? Can it be done locally? With the best will in the world I cannot see how Mr Osborne can expect to get help from what he has called a “collective discussion with the general public” by posing such general questions as these -- most of which in themselves beg many other questions as well. It looks more like a way of spreading blame for decisions that ministers have been elected to take themselves.