For the opening half of George Osborne’s Budget speech, the Labour front bench was busy waving around copies of the Evening Standard’s front page. This was visibly putting Osborne off; he wouldn’t be human if the fear that another of his Budgets was going to be dashed on the media rocks hadn’t crossed his mind. But by the time he sat down, the storm over the Standard front had died down thanks to a quick and dignified apology from the paper itself.
Osborne will also have been pleased by the cheers of his own side as he returned to his seat. For all the speculation got up by the irreconcilables, most Tory backbenchers seemed as pleased as could be expected with a Budget that was delivered against such a grim fiscal backdrop. They have retail measures to go and sell on the doorstep.
The scrapping of the latest fuel duty rise will, as Isabel said, please the cost of living caucus. The government will have foregone £21.5bn in fuel duty revenue by the end of this parliament (one can see why David Cameron likes to call fuel duty campaigner Rob Halfon the ‘most expensive MP in parliament’). This, taken alongside the increase in the personal allowance to £10,000 and the childcare changes announced yesterday, gives the coalition a story to tell on cost of living. And the 1p cut in beer duty is a reverse pasty tax: it’s meant to show that the Chancellor understands the importance of the small pleasures in life.
The Budget also marked a return to the themes of David Cameron’s conference speech, aspiration and the global race. I suspect that government moves to help home-buyers will concern many on the free market right, who’ll worry that it is just reflating the housing bubble. But it is worth noting that the coalition’s planning reforms should have eased some of the supply constraints.
I suspect that the political sport of the next few days will be about finding how the government has managed to get the deficit down by £100 million. The Treasury is being frank that they have done this by strictly supervising departmental expenditure. But they stress that no supplier has been paid late because of this. Of course, progress of the deficit is far slower than Osborne said it would be. But I don’t think the argument that the government has got it down only by strict spending controls is going to hunt.
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