This must be the most non-Budget in British history. No significant changes to taxation, or spending, over those already announced in the Pre Budget Report last autumn.
The Chancellor was able to announce better than expected tax income, lower than expected unemployment, and hence lower than expected deficits (down £11bn over th year). He made a few minor, and mostly highly political, tax changes such as the cut in stamp duty for the many and an increase for the few who buy expensive houses. He announced a few more areas of public spending cuts – sorry, efficiency savings – but these were fairly marginal. the big announcements about specific departmental budgets are put off until the (supposed) Spending Review due over the summer.
But that was the central message: we’re still in choppy waters – don’t rock the boat. The Chancellor’s bank manager image is a perfect fit for the subliminal Labour message that now is not the time to take chances, cut too early or cut too much. Labour are clearly aiming to repeat John Major’s feat in 1992 of winning when everyone (including the opinion polls) thought he would lose mainly because some of the electorate preferred the old adage of ‘hang on to nurse for fear of something worse’. Even the decision not to make populist give-aways in the Budget reinforces this message – things are too serious for frivolousness. Who knows, it might just work.
But it allows the Conservatives to make vague generalised noises about how they’d do more, more quickly, without being at all specific and hoping to win on on their ‘we are not Gordon brown’ platform. Truthfully, it’s difficult to see how the Tories could really do much more than Chancellor Darling is already planning to do in broad terms on public spending without risking crashing the economy, massively boosting unemployment and slashing public services. The political risk to them would be that if they did slash and burn and it did result in economic and public services disaster they’d be out of office for another generation at the Election after next.
Overall, this was clearly a Budget to forget. But that was probably the Chancellors aim. He’s clearly hoping in this case less really will be more.