Damian Green MP is Chair of the One Nation Caucus.
Although the pandemic took away some of the Budget Day rituals (and I think next year it would be wise to go back to the usual picture outside No 11 rather than this year’s weird staircase ensemble), 2021 has observed some of the usual Budget rhythms. The day itself belongs to the Chancellor, the following day opposition politicians and sceptical journalists pick holes, and then the world moves on, or the Budget falls apart.
By Friday the world was already moving on, so the Chancellor has triumphantly passed the first and most important political test.
What is interesting is the route he chose to navigate while maintaining an incredibly difficult balancing act. He had to keep protecting jobs and companies for the last knockings of the lockdown, while giving a strong platform for recovery and, most difficult of all, showing responsibility towards the public finances.
The elegant way in which Rishi Sunak picked his way through these various obstacles is instructive in what it tells us about his approach, and more widely the Government’s approach, to its central economic task. The combination of necessary increases in public spending in the short term, the skewing of this support to traditionally disadvantaged areas, and the acceptance of tax rises over the longer term to pay for it, showed an admirable practicality.
It also showed an instinct that I am happy to recognise as a modern expression of One Nation Conservatism.
No Conservative wants taxes to rise, but in the real world there are times when borrowing that extra £50billion is not responsible and cutting public spending would be irresponsible. This is one of those times. Interest rates will not stay low forever, so free borrowing is not infinitely available. Equally, the private sector will not recover everywhere unless it receives some targeted stimulus, whether applied to individual business sectors or specific areas of the country.
I observe that much of the criticism has come from the sternest right-wing commentators who believe that in any circumstances we should put tax cuts first and that any deviation from this path will cut long-term growth. Would that this were true. If every tax cut in every circumstance led to higher growth, and therefore a better economy to underpin great public services, then no Government would ever have to take an unpopular decision.
In the real world entrepreneurial spirits will flourish when the surrounding landscape, both fiscal and physical, is friendly. For the UK in 2021 increasing productivity in those parts of the country which have been left behind for too long is the only route to levelling up. This in turn requires a mix of public spending (which needs to be paid for) and Tory business boosters like freeports.
One Nation Conservatives think the market needs to be augmented and underpinned by state action but want to use the power of the market to spread wealth and opportunity. This budget hits that sweet spot.
This is one reason why Labour has been so feeble in its response. Sir Kier Starmer’s problems stem from his faulty analysis of where this Government sits on the ideological spectrum. For all that he has the virtue of not being Jeremy Corbyn, he has drunk the Labour Kool-Aid that tells him this is a hard-right, hard-faced Tory Government aching to destroy the public services in this country. This is demonstrable hogwash, especially after this Budget.
Labour’s loudest point is to complain that some towns with Conservative MPs are benefitting. Since 14 of these towns had Labour MPs before the last election, all this shows is that disadvantaged areas have despaired of the Labour Party. As long as Labour persists in this line of attack, it will fail to gain any traction. Oh well.
While a successful Budget is of course principally a victory for the Chancellor, it also tells us something significant about the Prime Minister. For years he has insisted that he is a One Nation Conservative. Perhaps people will now start to believe him.
He was of course an unusual Brexit supporter in that his social and economic beliefs were always much more in the centre of the political spectrum than many of his followers on that march. For those on the left who like to demonise all Brexit supporters, it is not possible to be a socially liberal economic interventionist in favour of grands projets, and to have supported Brexit. Boris Johnson is a living refutation of their world view, so it’s not surprising they are reduced to frothing fury by his successes.
The last Prime Minister to seize the centre ground and reduce the opposition to this kind of impotent anger was Tony Blair in his early years. In so many ways he and Johson have little in common. But remember that Blair also tried to claim the One Nation mantle for New Labour. The lesson from this Budget is that it is now firmly retaken by a Conservative Government.