All sides are anxious about this Budget

"In this country we have to look upon budget promises as made of the same stuff as lover's oaths." So said Lord Salisbury, three times Conservative PM, and his words are perhaps more apt than ever given that all the love drained out of the coalition's marriage some time ago. We need to sift carefully before being sure about what today really means.

As with all Budgets we should start this process by asking what impact it will have on the overall economy, who wins and loses, and what it will mean for the political strategies of different parties.

In terms of macroeconomics this budget was always going to be a non-event. It is broadly fiscally neutral, with only very minor upward ticks to growth forecasts. None of this is a surprise: this chancellor was always going to ignore those calling for more stimulus. This Budget, like all the others this Parliament, lives in the shadow of the choices made in the emergency Budget in June 2010 and subsequent spending review.

When it comes to the distributional effects, today will leave a mark, though in many ways a smaller one than other recent budgets. Politics between now and the Sunday papers will be all about trying to establish the narrative that sticks about who has won and lost.

Osborne's central claim is that the "bulk" of support on offer will go to low to middle income Britain. Yet it's very clear that 70 per cent of the gains from the hike in personal allowances - the key Budget measure - goes to the top half of the income distribution. The choice he made was to spread a small tax cut thinly to all individuals earning from £8,000 to over £100,000 - though it should be pointed out that, against expectations, the majority of the gains will be restricted to basic rate tax payers. And it's true that the increase in allowances is a less regressive way of cutting taxes than others. But that doesn't make it a good use of limited resources - it could have been better spent reversing the impending swinging cuts to tax credits for low-income working families.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that, unlike its predecessors, in this budget there has been no further assault on low income working families (though Osborne did put down a clear marker for a further £10bn of welfare cuts by 2016, which will make the 2014 spending review a complete quagmire for the Lib Dems) in order to pay for a thinly spread giveaway which disproportionately benefits better off households.

The party politics that result from today are hard to call. It's clear that all sides can claim some grounds for feeling upbeat about what the Budget will mean for them in the short term; yet in private each concedes that it is likely to expose an underlying vulnerability. The Lib Dems made the first move in the budget negotiations and will strongly assert the move to a personal allowance of over £9,000 surpasses expectations, vindicates their open source negotiating strategy, and demonstrates they are achieving results in government. The tax avoidance measures and hike in high end Stamp Duty will help placate their activists even if they remain grumpy about the cheapness with which Clegg conceded the 50p rate.

It certainly is good news for the Lib Dems that in raising the personal allowances they have alighted upon a popular flagship policy that Osborne feels the need to back. The bad news is that it appears to be a policy that isn't doing them any good electorally, which in part reflects the fact that very few voters seem to realise it belongs to them (a view borne out in focus groups). For all Clegg's persistence in talking about it, and despite the entire media class thinking it is very clearly his policy, it seems the public has yet to reach the same view. The risk for Clegg is that the budget makes clear that even when he manages to win, he still loses.

For their part Cameron and Osborne will think they have pulled off satisfying the rightwing of their party whilst binding in the Liberal Democrats, and steering Labour onto the ground of protest about unfairness rather than building up its credentials as an alternative government in waiting.

They will be pleased they have reduced the number affected by their Child Benefit horlicks (even if the price of this is horrendous complexity in the tax system) and have killed off calls for a new property tax in this Parliament - though I suspect right now they are starting to think they may have badly misjudged the reaction on pensioner allowances. And by taking the decision to tackle the 50p issue now in mid-term they will feel they've detonated a potentially explosive problem at a safe distance from the general election.

Yet for all their confidence there is no escaping the central fact that the Conservatives have acted very casually in relation to one of their biggest electoral weaknesses. The decision on the 50p tax is a further nail in the coffin of Cameron's original modernising agenda and it comes hot on the heels of the NHS debacle. However loudly they shout about taxing the rich over the next few days it will still be the case that in a few weeks time no one will recall a single anti-avoidance measure but many will remember the tax cut for the rich at a time when spending cuts for the rest are biting.

As well as affecting its constituent parts, the noisy budget process is likely to have implications for how the coalition works. The frantic nature of the briefing made it feel like a pre-election Budget. Let's not forget there are six more budgets and autumn statements this Parliament that need to be agreed. It's hard to see the politics of each getting much easier, or the Lib Dem desire for differentiation subsiding. That said, part of the intensity of the manoeuvring reflects the depths of the concerns among Liberal Democrat strategists about what they see as their dire prospects in the May elections - Clegg's moment of maximum vulnerability this parliament. If the coalition is to maintain a veneer of smooth functioning it will need to learn a more orderly way of disagreeing.

And what of Labour? Having been largely squeezed out of the pre budget debate by the Coalition's internal wranglings, the decision on 50p now provides them with a clear message which will be delivered with real gusto as Ed Miliband showed today in the Commons - and unlike the autumn statement it's not a message that can be caricatured as being about the desire for a larger deficit. But this will only serve for the short term. The big question the public are asking of Labour is not whether they are committed to tackling unfairness. At the start of the new year Labour chose to open a conversation about how they would govern in tough times. It's since been interrupted by the row about the welfare cap, the coalition's woes on the NHS, and then the Budget. Soon Labour will have to recommence that discussion on how they would govern with scant money, and when they do they'll need to be sure about where they really want to take it.

Don't be fooled by the upbeat assessments. All sides are anxious about where this Budget will take them.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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