This was everything a political speech should be: A well-balanced blend of tough talk and electoral treats. But the challenge now comes as the Opposition and press get to counter.
As the ‘no gimmicks’ Budget took pennies off pints and told us the Tories had “put a tenner in the tank”, the Chancellor skimmed around two key issues: where the necessary cuts will fall in the next parliament, and what more the Tories would do for the NHS.
The Conservatives’ task now is to sell their wares. Positive jobs and growth statistics have failed to really lift Tory polling figures over the last two years, so they will be looking to these policies to cut-through the public conscience.
These policies fit within the Conservatives’ overarching narrative of giving people greater control of their lives: whether it’s letting people keep more of their paycheque, or empower how they save and invest. The Tories are hoping that people link the party with this empowerment, and trust them with their vote, as the Conservatives have trusted them with their policies.
However, this was a coalition budget, and two parties had skin in the game when the Chancellor stood up, and the Liberal Democrats have their own plan for leveraging this Budget.
Tomorrow, in an unprecedented move, Danny Alexander will set out an ‘alternative’ Liberal Democrat Budget statement, clearly emphasising their different priorities and outlining areas where the Lib Dems would either go further or put a brake on Tory plans.
But today’s statement by the Chancellor already had significant Liberal fingerprints on it – so much so that the DPM even felt able to turn up for the statement.
Accelerating the personal tax allowance increase, increasing spending on mental health services and tougher action on tax evasion and avoidance are all policies with a distinctly yellow tint. On the latter, the confirmation of tough penalties for firms who facilitate and promote aggressive tax avoidance is a bonus for the Lib Dems since it was first mooted by the Chief Secretary some weeks back, who said it would appear either in the Budget or the Lib Dem manifesto. Many assumed it would be relegated to the latter.
Despite their ‘wins’ in this Budget, the biggest challenge for the Lib Dems will be ensuring they get the credit where it’s due in the eyes of the public. There has long been frustration around the personal tax allowance increases, a policy George Osborne now covets as his own. Tomorrow’s alternative Lib Dem Budget statement is an initiative they may wish they’d enacted five years ago – had they done so, the clear yellow water may have been more visible all along, and their Election prospects perhaps not quite so gloomy.
Labour Section – James Plaskitt (Senior Counsel at Cicero Group)
If Osborne’s political strategy was to use his final budget of this Parliament to blunt Labour’s election campaign attack lines, it’s going to fall short. The Chancellor had the Labour strategy in his sights, but his firing seemed to be going off at half-cock.
The debate on living standards comes down to an argument over which measures to use. That will sail above the heads of most voters, and confirm suspicions that politicians just spin the figures.
Critically for Ed Miliband, the Conservative’s hefty spending cuts planned for 2016 and 2017 remain in place (even if things ease off thereafter). Polling shows the public to be anxious about further deep cuts. Labour’s campaign opportunity here remains in play.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Labour’s trump card – the NHS – retains its full value. The Chancellor strangely passed on the opportunity to make a significant NHS pledge in the budget.
Ed Miliband saw his opportunity, and immediately linked the last two, launching his NHS ‘secret plan’ charge against the Conservatives.
The Chancellor opted to double down on his existing strong lines: the macro economy – recovery, jobs, deficit reduction, low inflation, growth. Labour has retained all its lines: the micro economy – low pay, job insecurity, living standards, together with fairness, looming cuts and the future of the NHS.
We have 50 days more of the arguments already in play.