Forget the hype – Osborne’s Budget is an irrelevance

Expect no surprises tomorrow. In fact, the economic die has already been cast.

Tomorrow is the Budget, one of the great set-piece events of the Westminster calendar. A moment when governments rise and fall, and careers are made or destroyed.

Not this year. Forget the hype, diluted though it has been by events in Libya and Japan. Politically at least, George Osborne's speech is an irrelevance.

He could surprise us. Take the opportunity offered by Ed Balls to apologise for the grievous damage already wrought to the British economy on his watch and beg forgiveness. "The Chancellor stunned the House of Commons today when he concluded his Budget address by collapsing weeping over the despatch box and imploring the opposition benches, 'Pardon us, pardon us, we were wrong, so very, very wrong.' "

I doubt it. Osborne is not Cameron. While the Prime Minister's instincts are to scurry away from the sound of gunfire, his Chancellor is made of sterner stuff. He is perfectly content to court short-term unpopularity in pursuit of what he regards as long-term political gain. The axe is falling. Nothing will stay his hand.

There will be the odd populist nugget thrown out to placate the discontented mob. Fuel duty will be frozen. Possible taxes on air passenger duty.

There was also some briefing in the Sunday papers about training and measures to tackle youth unemployment.

But this is mere window-dressing. Deficit reduction, hard and fast, is the government's stated policy. Tomorrow will be a reaffirmation of that, not a repudiation.

There is obviously something personal at stake for the protagonists. This is Osborne's first proper Budget and Ed Balls's first Budget response. But these are two seasoned performers. Neither is going to make a major gaffe. Neither will allow the other a major opening. The immovable deficit reducer will meet the irresistible fiscal stimulator. They will both retire with honours even.

Indeed, both meet tomorrow more secure in their position than their respective principles. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are still the subject of muttering from their respective back benches. Osborne is regarded by disgruntled Tories as the man who puts the lead in the government's pencil. Ed Balls is the person who brings stature to a still inexperienced leadership team.

Ready for a change of heart?

That's not to say the economic battleground on which they will take up arms is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. The economy is the issue that will define our politics between now and the general election. But tomorrow is a sideshow.

Far more significant will be the release of the next set of growth figures. If they show the economy has indeed slipped into recession, then all bets are off. Labour's general critique of the government's strategy – and Ed Balls's specific attack on the pace and scale of deficit reduction – would be vindicated at a stroke. In that instance, Labour is back in the game.

If, on the other hand, the economy rebounds and the wrong kind of snow is seen as being responsible for last quarter's downturn, then it is Osborne who will feel vindicated. He will portray himself as the man who kept his head while those about him on the opposition benches were losing theirs. The mantra of tough decisions, courageously enforced, will echo once more.

There are no certainties. The public backlash against the Osborne austerity package could prove overwhelming. Losses in the local elections could enforce a change of a heart.

It could equally be the case that an economic downturn focuses public attention even more firmly on the reasons behind our economic collapse. The opinion polls asking who people most blame for the deficit and attendant economic hardship make stubbornly sombre reading for Labour.

Whatever the answers to these questions, they will not be found tomorrow. Though it provides political theatre, the Budget in truth rarely proves to be a political game-changer, especially so early in the parliament.

Even at the end of the parliamentary cycle, budgets rarely change the political narrative. Kenneth Clarke's refusal to offer profligate tax cuts in his last budget before the Tories' 1997 defeat was because he knew that whatever he flourished from his battered old box, the game was up. Last year, Alistair Darling tried manfully but singularly failed to convince the nation that the economy remained safe in Labour's hands.

The fact is that the economic die has been cast. Cameron and Osborne have made their choice. They have one policy: deficit reduction. For them, there is no alternative. They will live or perish by its outcome.

The rest, tomorrow included, is just gossip.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity