Is Osborne planning a surprise cut in income tax for the Budget?

A source suggests that Ed Balls's call for a temporary cut in the basic rate was designed to pre-empt Osborne's Budget rabbit.

Expectations for the Budget have been so downplayed that suspicion is growing in Westminster that George Osborne will pull some kind of rabbit out of the hat tomorrow. If so, could it be a surprise cut in income tax? Here's the theory one source put to me earlier.

Ed Balls, who always seeks to pre-empt Osborne's announcements (he called for a freeze in fuel duty before the Chancellor did just that in last December's Autumn Statement), proposed a temporary cut in the basic rate in his interview in last Saturday's Daily Telegraph. The shadow chancellor, who has previously called for a cut in VAT and the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate (a measure Osborne was considering before Labour's announcement), told the paper: 

Anything he can do to help low and middle-income families would be better than no tax cut at all. A Labour shadow chancellor says taxes should be cut. A Tory Chancellor says, 'Over my dead body.' I can't remember a situation like that in my lifetime. If George Osborne, in this Budget, were to cut the basic rate of tax, we would applaud him. If that's all he did, I would be concerned. But, even so, we would say, 'At last'.

My source suggested that Balls had either learned or guessed that Osborne was planning to cut income tax in the Budget. If the former, the question now is whether Osborne will go ahead with the move. After last year's disastrous decision to abolish the 50p rate, a 1p cut in the basic rate would be the perfect way to demonstrate that, as Tory MP Robert Halfon recently put it to me, the Tories believe in "tax cuts for the many, not just the few". 

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.