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The public supports Rishi Sunak’s Budget – but can he make that last?

Labour MPs are not the only ones who believe that the Chancellor's planned cuts will ruin the Conservatives' hopes of electoral success. 

By Stephen Bush

Two thumbs up for Rishi Sunak: that’s the preliminary verdict voters have on the Budget, according to the first post-Budget poll for YouGov.

Overall, 55 per cent of the public thought that the Budget was fair, which is the highest score recorded since YouGov began asking the question back in 2009. But the figure that would make me pause, if I were Sunak, is that only 18 per cent of respondents believe that they will be worse off as a result of the Budget: an assessment that is hard to reconcile with the Budget’s across-the-board tax rises and the £4bn of extra cuts this adds to “unprotected” departmental spending (that is to say, spending priorities other than health, international development, education and policing), which were already facing sharp cuts and growing financial pressures. 

[See also: Polling: Labour voters divided over whether Labour is the party of “the north” or “London”]

Then there’s the planned cut to Universal Credit in the autumn – just at the point that the Office of Budget Responsibility believes unemployment will peak  – and you can see how this budget might unravel as George Osborne’s summer 2015 one did.

That’s the cause for optimism within Keir Starmer’s inner circle: that after the storm of the vaccine bounce and well-received Budget will come the better days (for them, at least) of arguments over a meagre pay rise for NHS workers and painful cuts elsewhere.

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The cuts are sufficiently sharp enough that a number of economists – including the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Paul Johnson – argue that there’s no credible way they can be delivered. While a number of politicians, and not only from the Labour party, think that the only way those cuts can take place is by nuking the Conservative party’s electoral hopes. 

Are they right? The secret to the Conservative Party’s political successes and failures over the last decade has been expanding and contracting the reach of austerity in order to retain popularity. From 2010-7, that meant cuts to almost everything other than health and international development. From 2017-9, it meant increasing the amount going into the NHS and gradually extending the same protection to schools and policing. Labour’s misery has been that whenever they have begun to make headway on one front, the Conservatives have withdrawn from austerity in that arena to continue it in another.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s Budget has not prevented a surge in unemployment – it just delayed it]

What’s different this time is that Sunak is the first Chancellor since Osborne to increase, rather than decrease the scale of the planned cuts. That gives Labour hope that this time it really is different: that this time the cuts will be too much for the Conservative electoral coalition to bear. But it’s equally possible that Sunak is right, and that the Tories can still reap further electoral dividends from an austerity agenda. 

[See also: The Budget showed Labour needs a radical alternative to Rishi Sunak’s austerity