Osborne almost choked halfway through his speech. Let’s hope the rest of us don't do the same.

Budget 2013

As last year’s Budget proved only too well, the devil is always in the detail. And while according to opposition leader Ed Miliband this was a Budget from a downgraded Chancellor, there was substantially more in George Osborne’s fourth outing than many observers expected, with the possible exception of the Evening Standard, which broke an embargo on most of the proposals

There were changes to the remit of the Governor of the Bank of England, a new employment allowance to encourage entrepreneurs and small businesses to employ more people, new initiatives to encourage more mortgage lending and stimulate the housing market and even an unexpected one penny drop in the price of beer.

The Budget Book will be less digested (and less digestible) than his speech (Osborne’s knack of almost filibustering through his Budgets means it is quite hard to pick out the important announcements), and it might be there that details will be found on the costing of announcements such as reducing corporation tax for large companies down to a flat rate of 20 per cent for all companies regardless of size and the abolishing of stamp duty for shares traded on smaller markets, such as AIM. These were both welcome as part of a wider plan to make the UK the most attractive place to start and run a business.

But the government’s ease with the idea that it’s OK for multinationals to seek to reduce their tax bill by picking the best place to locate is slightly at odds with an apparent disgust at other forms of sensible tax planning. Osborne claimed that they will be naming and shaming those who advise companies and/or individuals how to avoid tax (which means accountants as much as tax lawyers and others) and suggested that the already heavily-trailed General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR) would raise £3bn, with £1bn coming from offshore avoidance.

This matches the amount by which Osborne claimed to be boosting infrastructure spending, with the usual focus on broadband internet and odd projects such as Battersea Power Station singled out for the nod.

The truth is that Osborne had as little room for growth as expected with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) again downgrading growth forecasts for several years to come. Osborne made much of the international picture and placed much of the blame for this year’s forecast rate of 0.6 per cent growth on the eurozone. In truth if the uncertainty in Cyprus continues or spreads, even that anaemic rate will look optimistic.

All government departments will be forced to make further cuts to their budgets, in total a further £1.5bn on top of the £10bn announced in December. These will be achieved through greater efficiency and better financial controls, so at least it seems Osborne does see a positive role for accountants after all.

Perhaps more disappointing was that the detail of how the government intends to get money out to SMEs remained unclear. There was a brief mention of the Business Bank early on but no more detail in the speech.

Osborne almost choked halfway through delivering the Budget speech. Let’s hope there is nothing in the detail that makes the rest of the country do the same.

This article first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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