Stand back from the detail of today’s Budget and what we observe is Britain’s political class trying – and failing – to respond to the crisis in living standards facing Britain.
They are doing this at the same time as they, of course, seek to outmanoeuvre their political opponents and build support among their friends. One manifestation of this will be the growing tussle over tax cuts, which will increasingly dominate party politics in the years ahead (see tomorrow’s NS).
Until there are convincing ideas that resonate with the public on how to ensure that real wages will rise, party leaders will remain in the familiar territory of fighting over tax and benefit changes.
The political need to support living standards and kick-start growth, which greatly outstrips the practical ideas on how these goals can be achieved, resulted in a number of contradictions that ran through today’s Budget.
Changes to personal tax – billed as reducing the burden on low-to-middle-income Britain – actually result in by far the biggest gains going to those in the top half of the income distribution. A statement of vaunting ambition about the need to reform and simplify the whole of our tax and National Insurance system immediately gets submerged in a sea of tax wheezes. And the heralding of a new model of growth is fleshed out with a set of micro-measures that will be wearily familiar to anyone who has spent time in Whitehall over the past decade.
There are, naturally, things to welcome. Steady growth in apprenticeships, extra support for science, a helping hand for first-time housebuyers and taxing private jets are all to the good. The extension of mortgage interest support will prove important in a year that is going to see more and more households pushed closer to repossession due to the impending hike in interest rates. And there may be some begrudging acknowledgement from an angry public for the cut in fuel duty.
But the real measure of today’s political class will be whether they can develop a compelling account of what really underpins shared growth, in which the gains are more fairly spread across the working population. Without this, all of today’s tax tweaks and the associated reform rhetoric will be neither here nor there.
Gavin Kelly is the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.