Nine months ago as George Osborne readied his red briefcase for the 2012 budget, this website paid tribute to his political cunning and awareness that ‘squillionaires alone’ would not win elections.
Well he showed us! In fact he showed all of us, delivering a package of measures that entirely consisted of stick, all of the carrots having earlier been distributed to the Sunday newspapers, in probably the greatest political miscalculation since Gordon Brown’s 10p tax.
The pasty tax and the raid on pensioners dominated the coverage of the budget for days thereafter, and kicked off a slump in the government’s poll standing that has yet to be arrested.
Did Osborne reprieve his political reputation today? Well, partially. On a snap judgement he managed to hold enough back for the statement to ensure the media didn’t immediately have to hunt for the hidden bombshells to have anything to report on at all.
There were ‘new’ new announcements on personal tax allowances and a cut to corporation tax rates, and detail was fleshed out on heavily flagged increases in infrastructure announcements.
That relied on some heroic levels of obfuscation however, with some pretty awful Office for Budgetary Responsibility numbers on growth and borrowing spun heavily.
Obfuscation turned into outright intellectual dishonesty in his sleight of hand on the government’s debt targets, boasting of ‘cash borrowing falls in every year’ of this parliament as a triumph of economic stewardship.
Technically true, but possibly of lesser importance than the overall deficit rising sharply on the March budget estimate and more than doubling in 2016/17 from £21 billion to £49 billion.
David Cameron got his offence play in early, getting off a snappy (for parliament) line about ‘plan B for bankruptcy’. But any government triumphalism about its own genius for economic stewardship now comes across as fairly hollow.
As Capital Economics’ head of UK analysis Vicky Redwood put it: ‘the UK’s safe-haven status still looks secure [but] today’s statement does nothing to alter the poor fiscal and economic outlook.’