George Osborne holds his ministerial red box as he leaves 11 Downing Street to deliver the Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne's politically deft Budget makes life even harder for Labour

The Chancellor ruthlessly exploited the opposition's weaknesses and addressed his party's own. 

The Conservatives had waited 19 years for a Tory-only Budget. There was plenty in George Osborne's seventh statement to make them feel it was worth it. The inheritance tax threshold will be raised to £1m from 2017, finally fulfilling the ten-year-old pledge that made the Chancellor's reputation. The 40p tax threshold will be increased to £43,000 next year as a downpayment on the promised £50,000 threshold. "The defence and security of the realm", as Osborne grandly phrased it it, will be guaranteed by year-on-year real-terms increases in the MoD budget and a joint security fund of £1.5bn a year. The UK will meet the Nato pledge to devote at least 2 per cent of GDP to defence spending. By acting early in the parliament, Osborne has prevented what would have been a fierce internecine struggle and earned the favour of those MPs whose support he will need in the coming Conservative leadership contest. 

The tax credits system that the Tories have long regarded as a form of Labour bribery was further unravelled. Support for families will be capped at two children and those who start a family after April 2017 will received reduced payments. The planned £12bn of welfare cuts will advance Osborne's goal of a budget surplus by 2019-20 and further surpluses thereafter. Public service spending is forecast to fall to just 14.5 per cent of GDP by 2019-20 - the lowest level since 1964/65. The state that Gordon built has been epically rolled back. 

But Osborne, who has grown in stature with every Budget since his 2012 nadir, was too politically astute to dress his statement in Tory clothes alone. The anticipated rabbit was unveiled in the form of a "National Living Wage", a measure designed to provide political cover for his cuts to in-work benefits (while poaching a pet cause of his leadership rival Boris Johnson). The wage is a "living" one by Osborne's definition alone. The planned rate of £7.20 from next April is below the current voluntary UK rate of £7.85 and far below the London rate of £9.15 (it is, in other words, merely a higher minimum wage). In a further sleight of hand, the Chancellor omitted to mention that the current rates took account of the in-work benefits he had just cut. But in politics, as Ronald Reagan observed, "if you're explaining, you're losing". The experience of the last five years proves that Labour cannot assume that voters who recieve a pay cut will not thank Osborne for their "pay rise". For a party that in recent memory opposed a minimum wage of any level, a rate of £9 by 2020 (£1 higher than that promised by Labour at the election) it is still some journey. 

There were other acts of political crossdressing that the opposition will find even harder to dismiss. Permanent non-dom tax status has been abolished with anyone resident in the UK for more than 15 of the past 20 years now paying full Brtish tax on all worldwide income. As Osborne allowed himself to cheekily note, his erstwhile opponent, Ed Balls, had warned that full abolition would likely cost the government revenue. In a long overdue move, an apprenticeship levy will be imposed on all large firms to fund the Tories' promise of three million more. Roads investment will be guaranteed by hypothecating revenue from Vehicle Excise Duty. It took Osborne far too long to recognise the value of infrastructure investment and the need to raise productivity  - but he can no longer be caricatured as a simple-minded Randian. The only consolation for Labour is that so many of the issues it campaigned on - higher wages, non-dom taxation, higher NHS spending, free childcare - have been embraced by Osborne. The party had many good ideas; it was the sales pitch that was the problem. 

It was a coalition, not a Conservative, Budget that Osborne had expected to deliver. After the Tories' unforeseen victory, this was a statement designed to ruthlessly consolidate their advantage. Labour's weaknesses were exploited through the budget surplus law and the reduced benefit cap; the Conservatives' were addressed through tax cuts and a "National Living Wage". After another Budget sweeping in its scope, the opposition is less sure than ever about how to reset the terms of debate in its favour. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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