So that’s it, the last Budget to come out of the Coalition Government. For the sixth time, we saw Conservative Chancellor George Osborne pick up the red box, wave it to the press, and stand in front of Parliament to announce the Government’s economic plans. This one, of course, was a bit different. It’s the last Budget before the election and legislation to enact it will only have seven days to travel through the Houses of Parliament.
Osborne and his Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, have been in fierce negotiations leading up to this Budget. Rest assured, everything in Osborne’s Statement was agreed beforehand by the ‘Quad’ of Osborne, Alexander, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; there were no surprises for either side.
The question is where does this Budget leave the Lib Dems? For those hoping it could lead to a polling boost for a party currently performing well below its historical average, don’t hold your breath. Pre-election Budgets don’t really affect polling heading into the short campaign. As Osborne delivered the speech, it would be even less likely that the Lib Dems would receive a boost. Osborne can claim credit for any popular announcements, like the personal income tax allowance – he’s done it before. At one point in his speech, referring to freezing fuel duty, he said “Ten pounds off a tank with the Tories”. Cameron turned to Clegg, saying “and the Liberals”; but how many people heard that?
This may be why Alexander waved his own yellow box at Spring Conference on Saturday – an attempt to clarify Lib Dem economic policy ahead of the campaign. It’s also why he is set to present a separate Lib Dem Budget in the House of Commons tomorrow.
An interesting element of this Budget was its regional focus as this election will be fought on a constituency-by-constituency basis. If you are a Lib Dem, you’ll be thinking about the South West, where polling shows the Party could lose 11 out of 15 seats, and Scotland, where it could lose 10 out of 11 seats.
The announcement on road improvements in the South West was one the Lib Dems fought hard for. It was a recurring topic at Conference and one Alexander said had been the result of a 40 year-long Lib Dem campaign. If this is communicated clearly on the ground by local Lib Dems, it could help the Party, but remember, the announcement came out of Osborne’s mouth and it is the Tories who are looking to take these seats.
The announcements on devolution were merely repeats and won’t cut through the bluster Scottish independence debate. However, measures to substantially reduce oil and gas taxes could, particularly in the East of the country.
Even if this doesn’t work, participating in this final Budget could help the Lib Dems position themselves as economically credible against Labour – they’ve been part of a Government that has seen growth rise to the second highest in the G7 after a devastating recession.
On a national basis, the confirmation that there will be an extra £1.25bn to fund child mental health services will prove popular. It’s a policy no other party had really considered and it’s the only substantial one on the NHS by any major party. The Lib Dems should speak about this as much as possible. It’s a noble achievement.
Alexander’s trailed plans to prosecute those aiding tax evasion with the same financial and criminal penalties levied on tax evaders themselves will position the Party on the public’s side of the debate. It’ll be a difficult one for the Conservatives to claim, given the politics around tax.
We also saw Government support for the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey has long advocated. The industry expected it to be a flagship announcement but the Chancellor gave it only a cursory mention. Renewable energy is an important issue for the Party, particularly as the Greens mount a challenge on its left flank. Expect this to be a key part of Alexander’s statement tomorrow.
Over the next couple of weeks, we will see more detailed analysis of the Budget. Such analysis may cut through the rhetoric but the public won’t be paying attention. They will listen to the headlines and the Lib Dems probably won’t get the credit they need or deserve.
However, for Lib Dem supporters, there are still reasons to smile. The Lib Dems have had one more chance to put in place policies that further the Party’s goals of a ‘Stronger Economy and Fairer Society’. There were some hard-fought wins in this Budget and these may engender local support in the long-term, even if they don’t affect votes in the upcoming election.
It is still unclear whether the Lib Dems will have a role in the next Government, but take comfort, much has been achieved and many people have been helped. These chances don’t come around too often for parties not coloured red or blue. For the one in yellow, the last five years have been a success; let’s see if there are five more in store.