Osborne has not solved the cost of living crisis

Britain needs convincing ideas about how to ensure that real wages rise.

Stand back from the detail of today's Budget and what we observe is Britain's political class trying – and failing – to respond to the crisis in living standards facing Britain.

They are doing this at the same time as they, of course, seek to outmanoeuvre their political opponents and build support among their friends. One manifestation of this will be the growing tussle over tax cuts, which will increasingly dominate party politics in the years ahead (see tomorrow's NS).

Until there are convincing ideas that resonate with the public on how to ensure that real wages will rise, party leaders will remain in the familiar territory of fighting over tax and benefit changes.

The political need to support living standards and kick-start growth, which greatly outstrips the practical ideas on how these goals can be achieved, resulted in a number of contradictions that ran through today's Budget.

Changes to personal tax – billed as reducing the burden on low-to-middle-income Britain – actually result in by far the biggest gains going to those in the top half of the income distribution. A statement of vaunting ambition about the need to reform and simplify the whole of our tax and National Insurance system immediately gets submerged in a sea of tax wheezes. And the heralding of a new model of growth is fleshed out with a set of micro-measures that will be wearily familiar to anyone who has spent time in Whitehall over the past decade.

There are, naturally, things to welcome. Steady growth in apprenticeships, extra support for science, a helping hand for first-time housebuyers and taxing private jets are all to the good. The extension of mortgage interest support will prove important in a year that is going to see more and more households pushed closer to repossession due to the impending hike in interest rates. And there may be some begrudging acknowledgement from an angry public for the cut in fuel duty.

But the real measure of today's political class will be whether they can develop a compelling account of what really underpins shared growth, in which the gains are more fairly spread across the working population. Without this, all of today's tax tweaks and the associated reform rhetoric will be neither here nor there.

Gavin Kelly is the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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