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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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

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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