George Osborne is a man with an election to win. Ahead of the opening of the short campaign in 12 days’ time, today’s Budget was a ruthless attempt to neutralise Labour’s strongest attack lines. After the unforseen “Road to Wigan Pier” headlines that followed his Autumn Statement last December, he announced that public spending would no longer fall to its lowest level as a share of GDP since the 1930s. Instead, owing to a more generous settlement, it will now stand at 36 per cent (up from 35.2 per cent) in 2019-20, merely the lowest level since 1999-2000: when Gordon Brown was in the Treasury.
But as I wrote before today’s statement, Labour can and will point out that this was before the major spending increases for the NHS, education and more. Osborne has gone from once pledging to match his opponents’ plans in 2007 to deciding he can live with the austere levels of 2000. More importantly, the dramatic fiscal gap between the two parties endures. Osborne’s goal of achieving a surplus by the end of the next parliament (in contrast to Labour’s aim of balancing the current budget) means Ed Miliband can still warn of far harsher cuts to come if the Tories survive in office. While David Cameron and Osborne imply that most of the pain is over, the OBR warns in its new document that the spending squeeze to come will be “sharper” than “anything seen over the past five years”.
Blessed with a well-timed fall in inflation, the Chancellor was able to boast that living standards will be higher this year than they were in 2010, his attempt to answer Labour’s Reagan question (“Are you better off now than you were five years ago?”) in the positive. While the statisticians argue over which metric to use, what counts politically is whether the voters feel better off. The deadlocked polls are evidence that many do not. Indeed, the danger for the Tories is that the suggestion that the “cost-of-living-crisis” is over merely reinforces the deadly impression of them as out-of-touch.
In an act of thrift, Osborne used the windfall from the sale of bank shares, lower interest payments and lower welfare bills to pay down the national debt: allowing him to meet his original pledge to reduce it as a share of GDP by 2015-16. Yet another Labour attack – that debt is inexorably rising – was neutralised. But Osborne’s record on the public finances remains one of failure: his promise was that the structural deficit would be eliminated by now, that austerity would be over. As in other cases, he has forced Labour to modify, rather than abandon, its attack.
Having fired at Labour’s foxes, Osborne moved on to rabbits. Most of them came as no surprise. The personal allowance will rise to £10,800 this year and £11,000 next year (a Lib Dem policy Osborne has shamelessly claimed as a Tory achievement). A penny was again knocked off a pint (an example of the reverse pasty taxes he has produced since his 2012 “omnishambles”) and fuel duty was again frozen. The only measures not trailed in advance were the new Help to Buy ISAs (an effective tax cut for first-time buyers) and the increase in the 40p tax threshold from £42,385 to £43,300 from 2017-18 (a tax cut for the top 14 per cent that the Lib Dems surprisingly approved).
There was no sucker punch, no coup de grâce, no knock-out blow. Miliband’s assured response to Osborne (by far his best since 2012) was testimony to how unsettled Labour was. There are Budgets, for good or ill, that genuinely change the political weather. This was not one of them. After a raft of articles proclaiming that this could be the day the election was decided, the Tories’ task looks little easier than it did this morning.