Osborne's balancing act
The Chancellor entered today’s Budget knowing the precarious nature of support for him from some on his backbenches, amidst the febrile tension created by the EU referendum campaign. It was therefore his job to create a dull, steady as she goes, don’t upset the apple cart type of Budget. Out the window were the plans to cut pensions tax relief, and too timid did he feel to put up fuel duty. There were also some reductions in tax which will have done him no harm with Tory MPs. But overall this was a bit of a boring Budget.
This delicate balance is important for Osborne. He continues to use the phrase ‘long term economic plan’ because it ties in nicely to his own long term plan for himself as the next Prime Minister when David Cameron steps down. He also wishes to avoid lumbering himself with the consequences of failure as a Chancellor, which is why he has been so keen to support the Prime Minister in casting this Budget in terms of security versus uncertainty, which in this case means Brexit (read:Boris) and Labour (read: Jeremy Corbyn). He wishes to be seen as the steady ship in a sea of mad hatters.
Whatever the politics, the truth is the Chancellor’s now twice yearly appearance to talk through the nation’s finances are dominated by whether his earlier statements on deficits and surpluses will match up with current forecasts. They invariably don’t, though that shouldn’t worry him. Throughout his tenure his forecasts have varied wildly, and an ineffective opposition has failed to land a serious blow on him because of it. Osborne is stretching out the deficit reduction programme right through this Parliament because he knows that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell will simply be unable to land a blow on him if they are still in post for the 2020 General Election. But Osborne keeps warning of those gathering storm clouds; if they do gather before he’s fixed the roof they may rain on his parade. And what will that do for his chances of becoming Prime Minister?