What is a Budget? It is a day of political theatre. It’s an opportunity to shift the direction of the country. It’s a chance to shift resources in new directions. And it’s a progress report: a moment when we’re able to look around and assess where, economically, we’ve got to.
As theatre, today’s Budget won few stars. The Tory benches were muted, although not mutinous. There were no rabbits leaping nimbly from moth-eaten top hats, although no Trussite mad March hares either. The Budget’s tempo was a dogged plod. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have set the course and everything now depends on the economy recovering faster from its Tory-driven crash than the experts predict.
So not much theatre and no new direction. What about resources? The biggest news was undoubtedly the extra money for Britain’s underfunded, inconsistent and hard-to-access child care system; and this was good news. There are many questions to be answered about the announcement and how it will actually affect the sector, but the extra money is desperately needed and, if it gets a decent proportion of the estimated 700,000 women affected back into the labour market, it could have a noticeable effect on growth.
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We should not be naive about this. It was an act of raw politics, with more than half an eye on the next general election. Speaking to the centre-right think tank Onward earlier this month, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, pointed out that in the 100 most marginal Conservative seats in England, around a quarter of the electorate was comprised of families with at least one child aged under 11.
Phillipson has promised a major Labour offer on universal childcare, although the details and the funding are still unknown. So should we protest about the Conservatives swiping another Labour policy? One of the most effective passages in Keir Starmer’s response to the Budget was when he listed all the Labour ideas adopted by the Tories. But in this case we should applaud: if Hunt’s bid to seize Labour territory on childcare means the opposition has to sharpen and extend its offer then we have a proper political competition from which parents of young children can only benefit.
Again on resources, the decision to abolish the £1m lifetime allowance cap on pensions is well-intentioned: it is about persuading fewer people to retire early. But it seems badly targeted – only around 8,000 high-earning workers will benefit – and it won’t be popular in more working-class Red Wall constituencies. Early calculations suggest that the new “full expensing” policy for business won’t offset the corporation tax rise from 19 per cent to 25 per cent and if Tory right-wingers are going to get stroppy it will be about that.
After theatre, direction and resources, what about the progress report? This, I think, is what matters most and is bleakest for the Conservatives.
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