So did he do it? This was a budget with a strong narrative about the ‘aspiration nation’, and the Chancellor certainly did everything he could to nod to two of those three groups that James identified last week. He had two distinct sections on making Britain competitive in the global race and tackling the cost of living, while dismissing ‘those who would want to cut much more than we are planning to – and chase the debt target’.
The cost of living section was a careful attempt to please Sun readers who had been so irritated by last year’s Budget. And Osborne also took care to spell out the tangible benefits of scrapping the fuel duty increase and the beer duty escalator. He said:
‘Today, I am cancelling this September’s fuel duty increase altogether. Petrol will now be 13 pence per litre cheaper than if we had not acted over these last two years to freeze fuel duty. For Vauxhall Astra or a Ford Focus that’s £7 less every time you fill up.’
And he made the point that though the beer and fuel measures wouldn’t ‘transform’ family budgets, ‘it helps a little to have some bills that aren’t going up’. It’s just as important for families to feel that the government is on their side and that their standards of living aren’t deteriorating as it is for OBR forecasts to go Osborne’s way.
And on competitiveness, Tory backbenchers seem blown away by the Employment Allowance, which takes the first £2,000 off the employer National Insurance bill for small businesses.
One other significant pattern during the statement was Osborne’s continual efforts to praise backbench MPs who have been campaigning on specific issues, and outlining how he was responding to their campaign. Priti Patel, Bob Blackman, and Robert Halfon as well as Lib Dem Alan Reid and Labour’s Tristram Hunt all got a mention. Those individual backbenchers beamed with pride. Tristram Hunt fanned himself with his Order Paper when Osborne announced he was exempting the ceramic industry and others from the climate change levy. But the overall intention was clear: to show MPs that Osborne listens to backbenchers when they come to him with ideas. It counters the narrative of the inner circle.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were making quite a fuss about the Standard breaking its Budget embargo. But the newspaper’s editor Sarah Sands has already apologised and is writing to the Speaker with an apology too. So in the end when Miliband stood up, he told Osborne he’d expect him to investigate what happened, rather than calling for heads to roll. The rest of his speech seemed to be a repeat of the response to the 2012 Budget and Ed Balls’ 2012 Autumn Statement response, focusing as much on the 50p tax rate as it did on anything else.