Not only did it include a halving of bingo duty, designed to appeal to Robert Halfon’s ‘working class Tories’, but listening to the Chancellor’s statement felt like a game of bingo in itself, as we crossed off all his favourite catchphrases. “We will fix the roof when the sun is shining”; “long-term plan”; Britain “earning its way in the world”; “help for hardworking people”.
If much of the rhetoric felt familiar, the crucial difference today from Osborne’s previous Budgets was that he was delivering it against a backdrop of a growing economy rather than a stagnant one. Whereas in previous years Ed Miliband’s response could almost have written itself as he chastised the Government for a failing plan, today he had a rather more difficult task.
Without prior sight of the detail, the Leader of the Opposition is always restricted to a broad-brush response which reflects the broader economic climate rather than the minutiae contained in the Red Book. It was therefore understandable that Ed M chose to focus his attack on the cost of living crisis which has become the Labour leader’s bread and butter over the past six months.
Even the welfare cap “trap” was no great political manoeuvre, as the Chancellor must surely have known that Labour would gladly embrace the opportunity to agree with the principle and shore up their own credentials on keeping the welfare bill down.
Ed Balls has duly confirmed that Labour will vote for the cap.
Aside from the further increase in personal income tax allowances to £10,500, Osborne’s statement contained surprisingly few new crowd-pleasing measures designed to address the squeezes on living standards. The fuel duty freeze and penny off a pint were repeats of old tricks as opposed to real headline grabbers on this occasion. Osborne may have been reluctant to deliver a ‘cost of living’ Budget for fear of being seen to be fighting on Labour’s terms. Contained in the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts is a projection that wage increases will finally start outstripping inflation this year and the Chancellor may be hoping that this will be sufficient to blunt Labour’s attacks on falling living standards.
This also felt like a somewhat less political Budget than previous Osborne efforts and perhaps he believes that the improving economic outlook negates the need for headline grabbing gimmicks. Even the welfare cap “trap” was no great political manoeuvre, as the Chancellor must surely have known that Labour would gladly embrace the opportunity to agree with the principle and shore up their own credentials on keeping the welfare bill down. Ed Balls has duly confirmed that Labour will vote for the cap.
The real surprises were in the reforms to the pensions and savings landscape which somehow managed to avoid the usual pre-leaks. Labour has not been shy in advocating reforms in this area itself in recent months and it will be interesting to see how Ed Balls, Rachel Reeves and co respond to what the Government has come up with.
Early indicators are that this was a much more sure-footed Budget from the Chancellor which will not unravel in the months ahead in the way that his 2012 effort did. He can expect positive headlines for the growth and deficit figures which have been revised in the right direction for a change, and also for the moves to encourage saving and improve flexibility for those in and approaching retirement.
But overall this is a Budget that is unlikely to radically alter the political landscape. Osborne has chosen his course and today’s Budget did not deviate from it. The Coalition will continue to press the case that their plan is working and Labour would wreck it.
Labour has likewise chosen a clear path from which today’s Budget will not deter them – that this is a recovery for the few not the many and only Labour will build an economy that works for all.
These are the battle lines for the next 14 months. Today’s Budget was merely a skirmish.