East meets Westminster Budget 2013 Special: A little here and there but blackhole still looming for the Chancellor.
- Credit: PA
Osborne raises a pint to first-time buyers and small business, but the true extent of the mess Britain is in is laid bare
GROWTH forecasts slashed. A stalled deficit reduction programme. Unemployment growing.
And yesterday George Osborne, the embattled, wounded and downgraded Chancellor, did little to challenge any of these gigantic issues which are lurking around Britain, circling in the nation’s psyche and waking us with a thump at 3am.
A year ago Mr Osborne delivered a car crash of a Budget. To call the now infamous ‘omnishambles’ a disaster is to down play how damaged the Conservatives and Mr Osborne were. It will haunt them whatever happens now or in the future.
This time around it had to be different – Mr Osborne’s political life rested on that hour at the dispatch box which he had been both longing for and dreading in equal measures since the first bead of sweat appeared on his furrowed brow over granny tax, pasty tax, caravan tax... the list goes on.
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As he took to his feet he appeared strained. Yards away his nemesis Ed Balls was snarling at him, he could sniff blood and it was Bullingdon blood.
And things did not improve for Mr Osborne. The screams and heckles grew to such levels as he spread the despair of missed targets and broken promises that the deputy speaker had to call a brief halt to proceedings.
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Gloom after doom, ever-higher millions and billions – the list of failures seemed to go on for hours. Midway through Mr Osborne took a sip of his water – as the only man allowed to take a drink in the House of Commons, the Chancellor may well have wished he had chosen scotch rather H2O – and spluttered. For a second the chamber quietened down as Mr Osborne appeared to be desperately trying to compose himself. Even – after a smirk in his old pal’s direction at first – David Cameron looked up, concerned as to whether Mr Osborne might scream: “Bugger this old chaps. I’m off to work in the City.”
That first half an hour of the 55-minute speech hurt. There was nothing that economists would not have already confidently predicted but Britain’s twitching, naked corpse was laid bare for all to see.
Britain and the Coalition are way off course. When the figures are crunched they show that wages will be down on average by 2.4% between 2010 and 2015. For the average family that is almost £400 a year.
The Coalition always said their route would be tough – but they did not say it would be this tough.
There was to be no silver bullet, no big plan, no economic eureka moment. Just, as Labour leader David Miliband said, “more of the same”. If Britain is to recover down the Coalition route the pain is a long way from over.
Then, at the Budget’s darkest moment, Mr Osborne perked up. He stopped talking downwards and spitting out bad news and stepped out of the shade.
For Mr Osborne things were about to get ‘bitter’, with a raft of policies he hopes might put a smile on people’s faces – the most striking being being 1p off a pint of beer. Cheers to that, the Tory backbenchers wailed in unison.
But the main focus of the handouts – funded by yet more axe swinging in Whitehall – was the ever-increasing squeezed middle. For them it was good news on childcare, fuel duty and the £10,000 tax threshold will now be reached – an honourable achievement driven by the Liberal Democrats.
And there was some welcome news for businesses with Corporation Tax falling and National Insurance contributions ditched for more than 450,000 employers.
But the blockbuster moment for Mr Osborne came when he echoed Margaret Thatcher’s home ownership push of the 1980s with what will become the standout moment of this Budget once the hangovers have lifted from binge drinking all those soon-to-be penny-cheaper pints.
The Help to Buy scheme is ambitious – and if it works it is political gold dust.
Since the crash – caused by the out-of-control US sub-prime mortgage market – people wanting to buy for the first time have been told they will need to find much larger deposits. Often the bank of Mum and Dad have had to dig deep in a bid to help their offspring out – but now it will be state-sponsored.
If there are no nasty details in the small print, Help to Buy is a winner. Getting middle class people – and middle class people’s children – into property ownership will win votes.
But even more importantly the knock-on effect should be that it gives the construction industry the shot in the arm it needs.
Without wanting to sound like a stuck record, East meets Westminster will again proclaim: “Britain needs to build her way out of this recession.”
As the good news kept coming Balls and Miliband looked at each other in quizzical fashion – it was as if they were expecting Mr Osborne to be mauled and yet somehow he was turning it around.
And as he commended his statement to the House a grin ran across Mr Osborne’s face, not a smile, not yet, but there was a glimmer of light from the wreckage of last year.
Then the Labour boots flew in. Mr Miliband pulled no punches: “Every Budget he comes to this House and things are worse, not better for this country... Britain deserves better than this.”
And he is right. Britain does deserve better than crippling cuts and a bleak, slow, agonising crawl back to the black.
The arguments about how Britain could have tackled the financial crisis differently are long and complex. But the reality is that families, hard-working people who are just trying to do their best for themselves and those they love are tripping over and not getting back up.
Britain used to be a nation of shopkeepers and now it has become a nation of food banks.
Through the thin web of good news this country’s future and its potential to recover is still very much in the balance.