The Budget was supposed to be the moment that shares in George Osborne rallied, after falling for months. The Chancellor aimed to repair a reputation dented by the tax credits imbroglio, the Google tax deal (“a major success” in his unwise words) and the Sunday trading defeat.
But rather than relieving Osborne’s woes, the Budget has intensified them. Following the threat of a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers over planned cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) for the disabled, the government is already in retreat. No.10 this morning described the policy as merely a “proposal” despite it being the largest revenue raiser (£4.4bn) in the red book. In the eyes of Tory MPs and others, the Chancellor has repeated the error he only recently committed over tax credits: cutting benefits for the disadvantaged (370,000 disabled people are set to lose an average of £3,500 a year) while cutting taxes for the well-off (Capital Gains Tax was reduced from 28 per cent to 20 per cent, the higher rate tax threshold was raised to £45,000 and corporation tax was reduced to 17 per cent). A mere 13 per cent of voters support reducing PIPs.
Not since his 2012 “omnishambles” has the Chancellor been forced on the defensive so swiftly. To confirm the parallel, his statement has been judged “unfair” by the public for the first time since that nadir. Osborne’s own approval rating has fallen to -23 and Labour has moved ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. “Well, that went well didn’t it?” one Tory MP surmised. After a brief rally, shares in the Chancellor are now falling like those of the soft drinks companies he has chosen to tax.
Throughout Osborne’s long spell at the height of the Conservative Party (he became shadow chancellor at 33), he has shown a rare ability to recover from political wounds. After nearly losing his post in 2006 over the Oleg Deripaska affair, he prevented Gordon Brown calling an early election by pledging to cut inheritance tax. Having delivered the calamitous 2012 Budget (and been booed at the Paralympics), he helped the Tories secure a parliamentary majority and became the favourite to succeed David Cameron (a status he has since lost).
The technophile Chancellor has resembled a video game character with multiple lives. After repeated – and unforced – errors, he is in danger of running out.