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6 March 2024

The Conservatives still look doomed

Jeremy Hunt’s Budget lacked a sharp-edged election argument capable of troubling Labour.

By Andrew Marr

By the end of the Budget, far from the hubbub of the Commons chamber, one imagined a scene in Downing Street. There is Rishi Sunak, hopping about edgily beside a relaxed-looking Jeremy Hunt. “You’re going to save me, aren’t you Jeremy?” pleads a desperate Prime Minister. “You’re going to pull out a grand surprise, something that really catches the country’s imagination and changes the opinion polls? One of those great theatrical turning points… Shazam! Jeremy?”

Hunt shrugs and raises an eyebrow: “Well, PM, you know what’s in the Budget already because we’ve leaked it. Non-doms, fuel duty, second homes, vapes, windfall tax, National Insurance. You’ve seen the numbers. It’s a bit hard, old friend, to do more without being irresponsible. And Prime Minister, we are not reckless. We are not wild. We are not irresponsible. I am not Kwasi. You are not Liz. Isn’t that, after all, the whole point of us?”

Then an increasingly agitated Sunak pleads: “But, Jeremy, it’s election year. This may be our last chance. With growth this low and taxes this high, we are running out of time. We may have to factor in £20bn for the infected blood scandal; the autumn may be too late for another wave of the red box. Come on, Jeremy, give me a rabbit. Please?”

But the Chancellor replies: “It’s over, mon vieux. You know it. I know it. The birds in St James’s Park know it. Even the bloody rabbit knows it. 

“We have the choice of sticking with what we believe, our principles, and taking what comes – perhaps a better life for both of us after the election – or being remembered as yet another pair of reckless navigators, as our party hits the rock and splinters. Which would you prefer?”

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And at this the Prime Minister sadly nods his head and says he’s going upstairs because he’s remembered he hasn’t made the bed yet.

All of which is a way of saying that this was, in many ways, not a bad Budget – but nor was it a Budget that will come close to winning the Conservatives this year’s general election.

The leaking of virtually every item beforehand was genuinely strange. I assume the Treasury realises that a normal Budget these days includes so many pieces of information that the public can’t absorb or even properly notice them. But a Budget split into pieces, via newspaper headlines, has its own problems.

It builds up the expectation of a big surprise. In the couple of hours before the Chancellor got to his feet, I had conversations with very senior Labour and Tory MPs who were convinced there was an income tax cut coming as well. By the end I had entirely convinced myself.

Of course, the Budget still leaves the country in a position where a combined 4p cut to National Insurance (if we also include the 2p cut made in the Autumn Statement), which will be greatly welcomed by many hard-pressed working people, is matched by a desolate outlook for public services in the years ahead. 

It still means that Labour’s plan to raise £1.6bn for the training of nurses, for instance, has been thrown into disarray by the money being taken from non-doms and used instead to reduce the child benefit charge. The opposition still has much explaining to do in terms of how it will improve the dire financial situation of the NHS, local government, the armed forces and schools. The tax burden will rise to its highest level since 1948.

But for all his frankly quite good-humoured jibes about Labour still being the tax-and-spend party, there was no sense that Hunt had found a new, sharp-edged election argument to brandish. To that extent, Rachel Reeves has been almost entirely successful, it seems, in deflecting a tax-based campaign.

What was noteworthy is that despite the Conservatives’ continued disastrous showing in the opinion polls, many of the more detailed measures in the Budget were forward-looking and coherent about the economic future.

On help for tech start-ups and artificial intelligence companies, universities, pharmaceutical manufacturers and the arts – in particular the film and TV industries – there was a lot to like. The announcements on IT investment for the NHS, the police and the courts were thoroughly sensible and should improve public sector productivity. 

What was missing from the Budget after disruption by the SNP, still furious about the way it was treated over the Gaza vote, wasn’t just that rabbit. It was any sense of real jeopardy, or the authentic anger you would have expected at the beginning of an election campaign. 

Hunt did his best to attack the opposition and to name-check as many Conservative constituencies as humanly possible. But whether it was using Peter Mandelson’s remarks about Starmer being slightly overweight, or teasing Angela Rayner over her housing confusion, or Reeves for mirroring Conservative fiscal strategies, there wasn’t the full-on faux outrage of a looming campaigning bust-up. “Too fat, too many houses, too Tory,” doesn’t quite seem a killer slogan, does it?

Britain remains heavily taxed, heavily indebted and under-invested. Growth this year is anaemic at best (0.8 per cent and in the minus numbers per capita) and isn’t expected to pick up until after the election. Even so, if the country was voting purely on Hunt’s sunny entrepreneurial prospectus, the Tories might be in with a chance. It isn’t. Voters’ memories of the zigzagging years of chaos and economic failure cannot be expunged.

In terms of election timing, either the government is going very late and the importance of this Budget has been oversold; or the government has concluded at some deep psychological level that it would rather go down with dignity than further trash the reputation of its ministers. We had predicted many things of this moment. I’m pretty sure a whistling-in-the-dark, calmly rueful fatalism wasn’t one of them.

[See also: The Budget showed Labour is setting the political rhythm]

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