By Paul Goodman
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George Osborne lost control of his budget presentation but maintained a tight grip on its measures. Because of the former, he had no good news to hold back, and the papers zoom in this morning on the bad news he had kept back: the tax hike on pensioners. The Mail, Express, Telegraph (unsurprisingly) and Guardian lead on it. The Times goes on the cut of the top rate to 45p. The Sun snarls at the Chancellor spurning its call to cut fuel duty.
The media loves a story that it has unearthed itself and which wasn't briefed by the spinmasters, so the front page focus on the bad news for pensioners is unsurprising. I wonder if this is the start of more Coalition raids on the older generations. It would be a turn-around were this to be so. Older voters tend to be Tory ones, and David Cameron moved swiftly during the election to rule out the paring-back of free TV licences, bus travel and the winter fuel allowance. The pledge to link the state pension to earnings has been honoured and there is a triple lock to keep it there.
But delve beyond the front pages deeper into the papers, and precious little agreement is to be found about this budget. The Times lauds it as right and the Financial Times says it's brave. The Sun mourns that fuel duty non-news. The Mail and Telegraph shrug their shoulders. I write in the F.T that the tax cuts at top and bottom and the squeeze on evasion and property represent the start of a Coalition tax philosophy – and a harbinger of it continuing after a 2015 election.
What drives the dissonance is that Osborne has been bold in one sense and cautious in another. Bold, in that he grasped the nettle on the 50p rate, raised the income tax threshold faster than expected, cut corporation tax, and has gone for growth over planning – wait for the rural rage from the Tory base – Sunday trading restrictions (which will vanish entirely) and, apparently, airports. I asked recently what makes him get up in the morning, and we have a better idea after this budget. His economic and socially liberal instincts took form in yesterday's package.
But if the Chancellor was sometimes brave yesterday at micro level, he was also cautious at macro level. He announced no change to his spending plans. And because he did not, his tax cuts were found by taking with one hand to give with another. In very crude terms, the income tax cuts for poorer and richer workers have been financed by other tax rises on the rich, the better-off (as Janan Ganesh tweeted yesterday, univeral child benefit is not coming back) pensioners, and the Afghanistan withdrawal dividend.
Martin Wolf writes in the F.T this morning that the budget is "without economic significance". I fear that he may be right.