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Assessing the media reaction

Much of Fleet Street’s coverage of the Budget focuses on the introduction of the new 50p top tax rate, no doubt partly because newspaper editors are among those affected.

The Daily Telegraph’s front page depicts Gordon Brown as Lenin and howls that Labour has reignited the ‘class war’. The paper’s flagship columnist Simon Heffer rather counter-intuitively declares that the Budget was an assault on “Middle England”, despite the fact that the new top rate will only hit the richest 1 per cent.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, the most visible champion of progressive taxation in recent years, hails the decision to “soak the rich” but laments that it has come so late. “This last social democratic flag may be drowning, not waving,” she writes. While the same paper’s leader warns that the rises in income tax will produce all too little revenue since they were “not combined with measures on property or capital.”

Far from a budget for the people, this was a budget for Switzerland, declares the Times’s leader . While some bankers will cough up, many more will be sent “scurrying to Geneva”, it claims. The decision to tear up the manifesto pledge not to raise income tax marks the death of “Mr Blair’s political project”, it adds. But the Independent’s reliably contrarian Steve Richards detects a quintessentially “new Labour dimension” to the decision. He notes that new Labour “never acted without checking the opinion polls and the focus groups first”, and suggests that Brown was persuaded to act after surveys showed the move would be popular.

However, it is one policy likely to swing Fleet Street against Labour come election time and Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, declares that the Budget marks the end of new Labour’s romance with the Murdoch press. There is now “no doubt” that the Times and the Sun will back David Cameron at the next election, he writes on his blog. Elsewhere, the Financial Times’s political columnist Philip Stephens says that Cameron’s Budget response was “that of a politician on the threshold of Downing Street.”

A recent survey of senior editors and journalists by the ConservativeHome blog found that only the Daily Mirror was likely to offer unambiguous support for Labour at the next election and the press reaction does little to dispel this suggestion. Though few go as far as the Daily Express, whose front page flatly declares “They’ve Ruined Britain”.

Some rare words of comfort come from the influential economist Will Hutton in the Guardian, who writes that Alistair Darling’s “considered calmness is becoming a considerable economic and political asset.” But Peter Oborne's withering dismissal of the Chancellor is far more typical. “Darling ducked the challenge. He ran away from the sound of gunfire. He failed the nation and he failed himself,” he declares in the Daily Mail.

Darling’s admission today that “the headlines were never going to be good…I was reconciled to that”, reflects a stoicism that will be much needed over the coming months.