George Osborne’s reputation has soared and crashed a few times during his tenure at The Treasury. On the fundamental measure of presiding over an economic recovery he has been vindicated – especially given the performance of other countries and the dire predictions from the Left that his policies would lead to renewed recession and increased unemployment.
Looking at his record we can see that he has succeeded when he has cut tax, and his greatest failings have been when he has put tax rates up. There was the “omnishambles” budget, of course, with the minor but irritating tax increases. The mood of the public was that we were already taxed too much and there was indignation over being penalised any further. Osborne had some notion that a balanced approach of tax measures would be rather smart. It was in keeping with New Labour’s cunning triangulation strategy, which Osborne is (or at least was) much taken with, having studied books by such Blairite gurus as Philip Gould.
Just being a straightforward Lawsonian tax-cutting Conservative Chancellor would have been better politics for Osborne. Paradoxically it would have raised him more revenue. He has noted that cutting the top rate of income tax – from 50 per cent to 45 per cent – has raised revenue. Cutting it further would raise even more. The excellent piece this morning from Tim Loughton notes the equivalent point that cutting duty on spirits has increased revenue.
Then there is Corporation Tax. At Prime Minister’s Question Time this week Jeremy Corbyn complained about it being cut, saying this was paid for by cuts in children’s services. David Cameron replied:
“Let’s look at what has happened to Corporation Tax receipts since we cut Corporation Tax. It is up 20 per cent. The point of
a tax is to raise revenue – not to make a political point.”
By contrast, where Osborne has pushed up tax – such as on Capital Gains or on North Sea oil – this has hit revenues coming into his coffers.
So on Wednesday there is an opportunity for Osborne to transform himself into a radical. Instead of fiddling around he can come up with a bold tax-cutting budget. I’m afraid the indications are that this opportunity will be missed. There are reports this morning that he will actually increase the Insurance Premium Tax – pushing up the bill for motorists by £80 a year. James Forsyth, who tends to be well informed, expects a “damp squib” budget, avoiding controversy with a few “worthy” announcements on infrastructure.
Where does this leave Osborne’s leadership ambitions? Most Conservatives want us to withdraw from the EU. Osborne has already put himself on the wrong side of that debate. Boris Johnson, in his final budget as Mayor of London, has cut the Council Tax precept by 6.4 per cent. I suspect we may be reminded of this in the future. One former Chancellor famously believed in “letting money fructify in the pockets of the people”. Will we get a clear message on Wednesday that the current holder of the office truly believes the same?