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19 March 2021

The two most important things about the Budget were not mentioned by Rishi Sunak

The biggest challenges the Conservatives face are the cuts the Chancellor couldn't admit to and the decline of office working.

By Stephen Bush

The two most revealing parts of Rishi Sunak’s Budget were the things he didn’t say. The first was the extra £4bn of cuts to “unprotected” spending (areas outside of the NHS, policing and schools), taking the total increase in planned cuts under the Chancellor to up to £17bn. These were included in the Budget, and the explicit argument that Sunak made for his across-the-board tax rises was also an implicit argument for further cuts. But the Chancellor did not feel able to come out and announce the extra £4bn of cuts himself.

The nature and scope of those cuts is hard to reconcile with the government’s policy promises and political objectives. Yes, you can “increase the number of police” while having huge cuts to unprotected departments, but if you can’t bring cases to trial in a timely fashion, then people are unlikely to feel like you have hired more police. You can increase NHS spending but if you are unable to discharge patients into the community because of the pressures on local authorities, people are unlikely to feel like NHS spending has increased.

That probably represents the biggest political vulnerability to the Conservative government, though so far Labour has not truly probed or exposed this weakness. It’s too soon to tell whether that reflects a belief that people do not want normal politics during a pandemic and that Labour is conserving its energy for later in the year, or if the party simply does not have the correct strategic approach.

The second thing missing from both Sunak’s speech and the Budget red book was anything to change the thinking of a business tempted to slim down or entirely eliminate its office estates. Arguably the biggest change wrought by the pandemic is the shift to remote working: it has shown that many businesses can successfully operate remotely, and that multiple office functions and costs can easily be shunted onto households.

As far as the labour market is concerned, that means that in large numbers of workplaces the conversation will shift from workers seeking the right to work from home occasionally to workers seeking the right to work in office. That, of course, has major implications for the businesses, small and large, that have emerged to cater to large numbers of people working in offices in town and city centres.

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If office working does not return on a large scale, the economic consequences will be significant and, in the short term, painful. Yet there was nothing in the Budget to change the calculation of a business pondering the end of its expensive office lease. One reason is that it is hard to see what, exactly, the Treasury could do: the best way to protect some in-office working is probably to increase trade union density, but you can’t do that overnight, in a fiscal statement.

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But just because there isn’t an obvious lever that the Chancellor can pull, it doesn’t mean that the two absences from his Budget won’t go on to define the parliament, for good and for ill.