George Osborne’s recent visit to Hughenden Manor, once the home of Disraeli, offers a better route to understanding the Budget than anything that he said in his speech yesterday, or anything that Labour said in response. As Douglas Hurd and Edward Young point out in their lively biography of “Dizzy”, he was the originator of modern party politics – of the practice of opposing more or less automatically whatever other parties said or did. Disraeli spent much of his youth fighting to get into the Commons, and once in it he kept fighting those who would keep his party out of office. His manner may have been dandified, at least in his early years, but his temperament was pugilistic.
Unlike his predecessor, Osborne is not an outsider, but he shares with him a ruthless desire to “dish the Whigs”, and this makes politics rather than economics the best prism through which to peer at yesterday’s Budget. The Chancellor first strolled away with Labour’s clothes – a higher minimum wage, a curb on non-dom status, a profit surcharge on banks, a dividend clampdown, less buy-to-let tax relief, business paying for apprenticeships on compulsion – and then returned to the scene of the crime to beat up his naked victim. Gordon Brown invented tax credits to build a client state for his party, and Osborne yesterday set about dismantling it. He intends to shift as many people as possible out of the Labour-leaning public sector into the Conservative-leaning private one by 2020. This helps to explain why he is masterminding the biggest reduction in the former’s workforce for half a century.
Fleet Street’s right-wing finest are queuing up this morning to laud the Chancellor for introducing a real Conservative budget – but that depends what one means by the term. It’s true that many of his apparent moves left are more than compensated for by real moves right. The banks may get a surcharge but they lose a levy. Companies may lose out via dividend reform but they will gain from lower corporation tax. People who buy property to let may lose on relief, but they will gain on inheritance tax – some of them, anyway. And it’s indisputable that the Budget in some respects owes as much to Thatcher as to Disraeli, pitched as it is at the blue collar voters who are massed in those marginal seats. The income tax threshold shifts up, the fuel duty freeze continues, and the Northern Powerhouse rolls on, at least in Manchester.
If, however, you believe that real Tory budgets prioritise deficit elimination, simplify the tax system, and keep the state out of the hair of business, you will not be joining the standing ovation. Balancing the budget has been put back by a year, all that fiddling with tax reliefs is unlikely to leave taxes simpler and flatter, and Osborne is not so much in business’s hair as in its face – forcing it to fund apprenticeships and a higher minimum wage (never mind the rebranding: that’s what his new National Living Wage really is). That last move provides a better insight into the economic plan of this post-election Budget than Treasury-briefed comparisons with Nigel Lawson’s of 1987. Lawson’s main aim was to achieve those lower, simpler and flatter taxes. Osborne’s is to shift some of the burden of deficit reduction from the taxpayer to business – and also, in a more minor key, the BBC, which will have to stump up for some licence fees as part of its deal with the Chancellor.
A more classically-honed Conservative Budget would have avoided heaping a new burden on business, and gone for raising national insurance thresholds instead. Osborne’s reply will be that what business loses on the swing of the new National Living Wage it will gain from lower corporation tax and a higher investment allowance – plus lower national insurance contributions for smaller firms. But this is to go to the nub of the matter. We simply don’t know how the sums for firms will add up, any more than we know how those for people will add up. (That’s to say, to what degree the new minimum wage will offset the effects of lower tax credits for new claimants.) Given the Budget’s mass of smoke and wilderness of mirrors, the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ analysis today will be even more of an event than usual. The bottom line is that this is a Budget which, absolutely correctly, takes more than it gives: a tax takeaway of some £19 billion by 2020. This suggests a lot of losers – not all of them welfare claimants.
One way of thinking about the higher-minimum-wage-versus-lower-tax-credits trade-off is that it’s there precisely because of those IFS calculations – in other words, to make them less stark than they would otherwise be. One can understand why the combination of easing the numbers, stuffing Labour and wrong-footing Boris Johnson – a target of some blatant put-downs from the Chancellor in the Chamber yesterday – was irresistible. (The London Mayor has been a recent champion of the Living Wage.) However, that doesn’t make it right. ConservativeHome is all for the Living Wage. We wanted tax breaks in the Budget to encourage smaller firms to pay it. And we don’t share the hostility to the Minimum Wage felt by some on the Right. But Osborne’s Disraelian move yesterday looks like the start of a journey in the wrong direction. As the IFS is pointing out this morning, business will have to find the money from somewhere: lower profits, lower wages elsewhere, or higher prices.
The Treasury’s calculation is that the 60,000 jobs the move will lose will be more than made up for from gains elsewhere – but no-one really knows. Furthermore, the Chancellor, by rebranding the Minimum Wage as the Living Wage, has muddied the waters about the real Living Wage, which is higher. He will come under pressure to close the gap between the two. And firms who are being forced to pay the former will now have a reason not to aim for the latter. This looks like a mistake. Tory MPs may have cheered the Budget to the echo yesterday, but the real winner from it seems to be Ed Miliband – if you can be one from the political grave, that is. Osborne’s scheme is a hymn to the last Labour leader’s ideal of predistribution. But just as the Conservative MPs of Disraeli’s age cheered his outwitting of Gladstone over electoral reform, so those of our own hallooed his successor’s outmaneuvering of Labour over workers’ pay (not to mention his welcome protection of the defence budget).
“They loved the sense of victory he gave them,” Robert Blake wrote of Disraeli’s triumph. “It was a feeling they had not had for years, some never before.” It is hard not to be caught up in the exhilaration. The Chancellor is a master of presenting his party not just as the winner of one election, but as being on the winning side of history. His closing passage yesterday on the progressive achievements of Conservatives was a joy to listen to – votes for women, protection for mill workers, state education, the right to buy. And after being led by losers for so long, the Party should be grateful to be led by a winner – for Osborne, after all, has been its joint leader, in effect, since masterminding David Cameron’s leadership win in 2005. Now he is readying himself to take over alone, and march on to victory in 2020. Yesterday’s Budget was an early glance at the battlefield map. On his side of it are pensioners, homeowners and wage earners. On Labour’s, benefit claimants and younger voters.
One day in the future, he may give us a real One Nation Budget: that’s to say, one that’s fairer between the generations, makes pension relief more equitable (though he looks to be planning for that) and creams off more of London’s property wealth to invest elsewhere. On Friday, we may get a glimpse of it: a big housing announcement is apparently coming. But for the moment what we have is a real Disraeli Budget – in other words, a nakedly political exercise crafted with a ferocious, pared-down, feral focus on winning. And for this, after years of losing or coalition, one can only cheer.