Constrained by a working Commons majority of 17, George Osborne faced a choice earlier yesterday. His chance to turn the first Budget of the first Conservative majority Government into a force for sweeping radical reform was gone. Last autumn, he was forced to drop his plans for tax credit change; this winter, he had little option but to abandon his aspirations for a pensions overhaul. The opening Budget of a term is often the one in which the Chancellor has maximum headroom to stamp his mark on events. But that lack of the comfortable majority that Osborne enjoyed under the Coalition, compounded by the divisive effects of the EU referendum and the hostility to his leadership ambitions of some Tory MPs, has left him little room for manoeuvre.
Furthermore, he over-reached himself during last year’s Autumn Statement, using an OBR forecast of £27 billion extra revenue not to reduce the deficit faster, but to display a series of conjuring tricks: the hitting of his surplus target, the achievement of his proposed welfare savings, the safeguarding of protected departments – “just like that”, as Tommy Cooper used to say. We don’t get everything right at ConservativeHome, but we were absolutely correct to call all this out as hubris, on the very same afternoon as the statement. We said that it was “a gamble that Osborne should not have taken”. And so it is that, only a few months later, the Chancellor returned to the Commons yesterday to concede that all those billions, apparently concealed beneath a sofa cushion, had never really been there at all.
The long and short of it is that the OBR has now downgraded its growth and productivity forecasts, and that Osborne will miss his debt target this year, just as he previously breached his own welfare cap. This brings us to the decision that he had to make. In essence, he could either dare to be dull and produce a Budget for continuing recovery – seeking to eliminate that structural deficit, as the Conservative Manifesto of 2010 aimed to do, as soon as possible. Or else he could postpone part of the pain and concoct a Budget for the EU referendum – putting back some spending reductions and rushing forward a few tax cuts in hope of creating a modest feelgood factor. In sum, he could produce a package that felt like a post-election Budget or more like a pre-election one.
In many ways, Osborne has been an effective Chancellor, proving predictions of a triple-dip recessions false, facing down IMF gloom-mongering, and delivering recovery where his critics said he would not, including the jobs miracle which he lauded in the Chamber earlier. He has set the tone for the Government: most of the policies that mark it are less David Cameron’s than his: the Northern Powerhouse, that Benefits Cap, the new Living Wage, the cut in the top rate of tax. He has also driven through some real Tory reforms – perhaps most notably the abolition of buying annuities on compulsion – very much in the spirit of Nigel Lawson. Missing deficit reduction targets is out of Chancellors’ hands. Delivering the spending reductions they promise is not. And on these, he has kept his word.
All this is a way of saying that, though this site distrusts Osborne’s anti-quality-of-life obsession with more Sunday trading and labour market participation for the parents of very young children, he is a great servant of the public – not to mention the Prime Minister – and a master spirit of modern conservatism. Much of the Budget carried on the good work that has gone before it: more infrastructure spending, as we urged on Monday – much of it doubtless reannounced – a further cut in corporation tax and more small business rate relief (there is seldom a bad time to cut business taxes). The Chancellor has consistently striven to offset the savings squeeze that is a by-product of quantitative easing, and both Help to Save and the Lifetime ISA are further steps in the right direction.
For all of this, though, it is very hard to claim that, confronted with a choice between doing the right thing and doing the referendum thing, the Chancellor took the correct decision. The OBR continues to forecast a surplus, on the basis that a deficit of £21 billion or so in 2018-19 is transformed into a surplus of £10 billion or so the following year. This assumption looks heroic. Osborne has pushed a lot of spending pain back and rushed a bit of tax gain early – personal as well as business, including marching down the hill on capital gains tax having previously marched up it. The rise in income tax allowances and the putting-off of a floated fuel duty rise look like sweeteners in advance of the referendum (which the OBR has somehow been persuaded to comment on)
All in all, this Budget looks less like one for long-term recovery than one for that short-term referendum. The Chancellor’s critics will also claim that it has been polluted by his leadership aspirations, but the facts fit uneasily with this snarky analysis. The Budget was certainly one for an Osborne leadership in the sense that it was one for June’s referendum, and the first cannot be achieved without the delivery of the second. However, many of the tougher measures will but towards the middle or end of the Parliament, by which time the Chancellor, if all goes to plan for him, will have moved from Number 11 to Number 10. It may be Chancellor Javid or Chancellor Rudd who has to grapple with the Sugar Tax but Prime Minister Osborne, its inventor, will still be around – or so runs the theory.
None the less, as I watched the Chancellor deliver his Budget, I wondered, perhaps mistakenly, whether I was glimpsing a new fatalism in him – or at least an acceptance that perhaps, within a few years, he may not only not be Prime Minister but not even in frontline politics at all. To be sure, he was as sprightly as ever yesterday: softening up those Eurosceptic small businesses for the referendum, cutting the ground from under Scottish Nationalist feet on Petroleum Revenue Tax, halving the price of tolls on the Severn crossings, name-checking Boris Johnson and a mass of other Conservative MPs…and pinching his colleagues’ announcements, especially Nicky Morgan’s. Above all, he ploughed on with his devolution experiment, which may be his most distinctive legacy.
But while the footwork was as fast as ever, he looked to me to be feeling the bruises of all those Budgets. Events catch up with Chancellors sooner or later: forecasts go awry, revenues don’t come in when needed, targets are missed, markets plunge, banks go bust, downturns come, pledges are broken or junked altogether. We may even have been watching Osborne’s last Budget – a thought that brings home with a jolt how accustomed we have become to his presence in the Treasury. Osborne is still a young man. But like Prufrock, he grows older. Only last autumn, he was perfectly poised to succeed his friend in Downing Street. Now, his support for Remain is hitting his leadership prospects hard. He does not know if the mermaids will sing to him.