Budget 2013: Osborne does it best when he does nothing at all

“The last thing we need is more tinkering”.

Asked what he wanted from next week’s budget, one successful entrepreneur I spoke to this week replied “not much".

A couple of others in the same discussion agreed. None had a list of proposals at the ready. It wasn’t that they don’t care what Mr Osborne says (although all agreed their focus was more on their businesses), it’s more that they want him to do very little. It fits with the general theme I hear from business that the government’s role should be to create a positive growth environment and then get out of the way.

And with the national finances in a pickle, the entrepreneurs were unanimous that the boldest thing Mr Osborne could do was nothing.

“The last thing we need is more tinkering,” said one. Her point is one ICAEW made in its submission to George Osborne, in which it suggested that instability in tax policymaking undermines future confidence. Whatever the good intentions, the culture of constant change in the tax system ends up leading to complexity.

After last year’s omnishambles, Osborne might himself wish he could get away with doing nothing. But with forecasters pointing to a triple-dip recession, sitting on his hands isn’t a political option for Osborne any more than it’s an economic one.

Assuming he ignores calls (some from within the coalition) for a switch to a plan B, or a plan A+, and instead sticks rigidly to fiscal austerity, he will have very limited scope for manoeuvre. As a result, rather like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, he’ll be using all the political trickery, smoke and mirrors he can to create the illusion of doing lots to help the country (and will be especially keen to be seen to help what he calls strivers and “the working poor”) without really being able to do a great deal.

The best outcome for business would be a Budget that really grasps the need to inject growth and confidence into the economy. As ICAEW explained in its Budget submission, this means putting in place the right mechanisms for getting finance to small businesses. This doesn’t mean another rebranding of the government’s lending scheme (which has already been re-launched on several occasions) but it does mean getting the proposed Business Bank up and running properly. It requires the funds already made available, whether through the Local Enterprise Partnerships or other mechanisms such as Funding for Lending to actually get to the frontline.

Accepting the limited scope for action open to the chancellor, combined with the need for a little political magic, (these occasions are often as much about pulling political rabbits out of the hat as they are sensible economics) there will doubtless be a whole raft of changes to various types of taxation.

Personal allowances will be raised, some commentators are expecting a tactical reduction in VAT (possibly for the hospitality sector), while others point to a continuing reduction in corporation tax (this one coming into force in 2014).

In the absence of much room for real action, it is fair to assume there will be a number of consultations announced into a whole host of potential schemes many of which will never amount to much, but which look good on the day.

There will be the usual media flurry listing winners and losers from the budget, all filtered through the current political lens of austerity and Labour’s constant jibe that the Tories are more concerned with helping the rich than the poor.

It’s hard to think that there would be more winners if Mr Osborne listened to the entrepreneurs and made next week’s the shortest Budget in history.

This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.