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22 March 2011

Forget the hype – Osborne’s Budget is an irrelevance

Expect no surprises tomorrow. In fact, the economic die has already been cast.

By Dan Hodges

Tomorrow is the Budget, one of the great set-piece events of the Westminster calendar. A moment when governments rise and fall, and careers are made or destroyed.

Not this year. Forget the hype, diluted though it has been by events in Libya and Japan. Politically at least, George Osborne’s speech is an irrelevance.

He could surprise us. Take the opportunity offered by Ed Balls to apologise for the grievous damage already wrought to the British economy on his watch and beg forgiveness. “The Chancellor stunned the House of Commons today when he concluded his Budget address by collapsing weeping over the despatch box and imploring the opposition benches, ‘Pardon us, pardon us, we were wrong, so very, very wrong.’

I doubt it. Osborne is not Cameron. While the Prime Minister’s instincts are to scurry away from the sound of gunfire, his Chancellor is made of sterner stuff. He is perfectly content to court short-term unpopularity in pursuit of what he regards as long-term political gain. The axe is falling. Nothing will stay his hand.

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There will be the odd populist nugget thrown out to placate the discontented mob. Fuel duty will be frozen. Possible taxes on air passenger duty.

There was also some briefing in the Sunday papers about training and measures to tackle youth unemployment.

But this is mere window-dressing. Deficit reduction, hard and fast, is the government’s stated policy. Tomorrow will be a reaffirmation of that, not a repudiation.

There is obviously something personal at stake for the protagonists. This is Osborne’s first proper Budget and Ed Balls’s first Budget response. But these are two seasoned performers. Neither is going to make a major gaffe. Neither will allow the other a major opening. The immovable deficit reducer will meet the irresistible fiscal stimulator. They will both retire with honours even.

Indeed, both meet tomorrow more secure in their position than their respective principles. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are still the subject of muttering from their respective back benches. Osborne is regarded by disgruntled Tories as the man who puts the lead in the government’s pencil. Ed Balls is the person who brings stature to a still inexperienced leadership team.

Ready for a change of heart?

That’s not to say the economic battleground on which they will take up arms is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. The economy is the issue that will define our politics between now and the general election. But tomorrow is a sideshow.

Far more significant will be the release of the next set of growth figures. If they show the economy has indeed slipped into recession, then all bets are off. Labour’s general critique of the government’s strategy – and Ed Balls’s specific attack on the pace and scale of deficit reduction – would be vindicated at a stroke. In that instance, Labour is back in the game.

If, on the other hand, the economy rebounds and the wrong kind of snow is seen as being responsible for last quarter’s downturn, then it is Osborne who will feel vindicated. He will portray himself as the man who kept his head while those about him on the opposition benches were losing theirs. The mantra of tough decisions, courageously enforced, will echo once more.

There are no certainties. The public backlash against the Osborne austerity package could prove overwhelming. Losses in the local elections could enforce a change of a heart.

It could equally be the case that an economic downturn focuses public attention even more firmly on the reasons behind our economic collapse. The opinion polls asking who people most blame for the deficit and attendant economic hardship make stubbornly sombre reading for Labour.

Whatever the answers to these questions, they will not be found tomorrow. Though it provides political theatre, the Budget in truth rarely proves to be a political game-changer, especially so early in the parliament.

Even at the end of the parliamentary cycle, budgets rarely change the political narrative. Kenneth Clarke’s refusal to offer profligate tax cuts in his last budget before the Tories’ 1997 defeat was because he knew that whatever he flourished from his battered old box, the game was up. Last year, Alistair Darling tried manfully but singularly failed to convince the nation that the economy remained safe in Labour’s hands.

The fact is that the economic die has been cast. Cameron and Osborne have made their choice. They have one policy: deficit reduction. For them, there is no alternative. They will live or perish by its outcome.

The rest, tomorrow included, is just gossip.