Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire, the Gothic-influenced mansion bought for Benjamin Disraeli by the Bentincks, is half an hour’s walk from my High Wycombe front door. It recently had a more distinguished visitor. George Osborne dropped in to view the ceremonial robe worn by Disraeli as Chancellor, which was originally made for William Pitt and is now preserved at the manor. Disraeli’s successor is a historian by training and talks knowledgeably about why it’s there: his predecessor refused to pass it on to Gladstone.
The Budget that Osborne delivered today was briefed as one of deficit reduction and reform – a conservative reshaping of the state on the scale of Nigel Lawson’s great Budget of 1987, rolling back the statist interventionism of the Gordon Brown years. ConservativeHome called for a Budget of deficit reduction and fairness: George Osborne “must show us that he would be a One Nation Prime Minister,” we wrote, with a nod to Disraeli himself, or at least the myth that followed him. Deficit reduction, Tory reform, One Nation – sound tests for this Budget and most Budgets. The best way of making an assessment is to apply them.
The Chancellor had the same option open to him, on deficit reduction, for the first Budget of this Parliament as he did for his first of the last one: to front-load the spending scaleback, and eliminate the structural deficit as swiftly as possible. He rejected it in 2010, spurned the chance to pursue it with a further squeeze later in the Parliament, and rejected it again today. In the wake of challenging Labour to sign up to his surplus target, he has put back the date by which it will be achieved by a year. The long slow squeeze on spending growth goes on.
In other words, his choice has not been to concentrate better-than-expected tax receipts or money from privatisations on deficit reduction, but to use a bit for higher spending and tax cuts – including today’s modest rises in the basic rate and 40 rate thresholds, and the more eye-catching Inheritance Tax reduction (which finally buries the claim that he was never committed to it, and bargained it away too readily with the Liberal Democrats in 2010). This was certainly not a giveaway Budget, let alone an irresponsible one: indeed, it plans for a tax takeway, the first of Osborne’s Budgets to do so since 2010.
But the Chancellor is not rushing to end that stubborn deficit. His motto, St Augustine-style, seems to be: “Give me a balanced Budget, Lord, but not yet.” In an uncertain world, of which the dire Greek backdrop is a reminder, this looks more than a bit risky. It’s not impossible to imagine Prime Minister Osborne challenging Labour to sign up to his surplus target in 2020…having still not met it himself.
On reform, there are plenty of fireworks. To the Inheritance tax cut add the Corporation Tax cut – a bold, brilliant stroke. The Northern Powerhouse is chugging along. Above all, there is the shift from tax credits to the new National Living Wage – in other words, the National Minimum Wage revisited. But the pre-briefing was over-egged. The Chancellor has not produced a Budget blueprint for “lower, flatter, simpler taxes” – a memorable Budget of Tory reform – so much as ingenious framework for ensuring that others join the taxpayer in taking responsibility for getting the deficit down.
Got a problem funding free TV licences? Get the BBC to step up to the plate. Looking for help for housing association tenants? Compel housing associations to cut their rents. Want to save a bit for the Treasury and curb the growth of buy-to-let? Reduce tax relief at the upper rate. Need more apprenticeships? Slap a levy on employers. Much of this is right. The state broadcaster and housing enterprises with healthy balance sheets and buy-to-let landlords can afford to contribute a little more. The biggest part of this push is the National Living Wage scheme.
In introducing it, Osborne scoops this year’s Ed Miliband Predistribution Tribute Award. Pity the poor ex-Labour leader. Only a few weeks ago, the Chancellor was denouncing his promise of an £8 an hour living wage by 2020 as a menace to business. Today, he sauntered to the despatch box to pledge a living scheme by the same year….of £9 an hour.
Osborne has out-bid Labour on pay for poorer workers, just as he outbid them on free childcare hours. To return to where we started, there is a smack about all this of Disraeli outmaneuvering Gladstone over voting reform. The Chancellor himself deliberately evoked the tradition of Tories leapfrogging their opponents in the closing section of his speech, citing votes for women and Victorian social reform – projecting an image as he did so of the Party being on the winning side of history. It was the grand rhetoric of a future Prime Minister, and his backbenches roared him on.
We won’t know fully until the numbers are crunched whether this really was a One Nation Budget. Much of it was necessarily tough. The continuing public sector pay freeze and the pruning-back of tax credits and withdrawal of housing benefit for young people provoked less outrage on the Labour benches than one might have expected: they are deeply demoralised by being on the losing side of the argument over welfare. Nonetheless, there is a bank levy and a more stringent regime for non-doms and yet another crackdown on “aggressive” tax avoidance.
But if even if this turns out not to be a One Nation Budget, it was certainly a Disraeli Budget. There is much more to admire about Britain’s only Jewish Prime Minister to date than his detractors would have you believe: his patriotism, his unwavering belief in England’s institutions and the country’s greatness, his last Government’s record of social reform. However, what distinguished him was not so much his views as his disposition: he was the first major British politician to believe that the opposing party (then the emerging Liberals) should nearly always be opposed themselves – and much of his political energy was bent to that end.
We have been reading recently of a new, less tribal, more high-minded Osborne. Certainly, he looked like a Prime Minister today. And to be sure, there were strokes of true-blue inspiration in his Budget – such as the defence spending commitment, which this site has been pressing for. None the less, at its core was less a route map to making Britain a more centre-right country than a plan to transfer support for poorer workers from the taxpayer to employers. A shift in this direction was certainly needed. We wanted it done by new tax incentives for employers to pay the Living Wage. Instead, Osborne has reached for a blunt instrument. We fear this is a Disraelian step too far.