Budget is coalition’s most Conservative move so far
Chancellor showed his political mettle and delivered his message with populist zeal
Introducing his Budget yesterday, George Osborne was at pains to contrast his own style with that of Gordon Brown. However difficult the figures might be, he would not, he promised, rattle through them at such a rate that no one could follow - a favourite Brown trick when times were tough.
That was brave of him, given just how bad the recent economic news has been.
But rapid fire or measured, all budgets are political and this was no exception. Locked into the spending cuts and tax rises he outlined last summer, the Chancellor's task was to make the most of what little wriggle room he had.
Brown invariably reserved his largesse for the public sector and its unionised work force. Yesterday, Osborne hardly gave them a look in - a little money for railways, £100m for potholes, and that was it. As for public sector employees, a few favoured groups will get a minimal wage increase but all of them will be hit by a large increase in their pension contributions.
The surprise cut in petrol duty was clearly designed by Osborne to steal the headlines. But he also targeted other unashamedly Tory causes, among them deregulation, tax breaks for business, and he reaffirmed that one day he hopes to scrap the 50p top tax rate.
His Lib Dem partners saw some of their ambitions advanced as well, but fundamentally this Budget was the most Conservative measure the coalition has yet produced.
Where the Chancellor really showed his political mettle, though, was in the way he nuanced this message.
Both he and the Prime Minister are often accused of being toffs, only really in tune with the rich. With living standards under greater pressure than at any time since the 1970s, Osborne set about rebutting this with populist zeal. Bankers, oil companies, utilities, users of private jets and non-doms will all have to pay more for measures to placate the squeezed middle classes.
As a strategy, it may not appeal to his friends in Notting Hill. But given the economic straitjacket he is in, it made sense for the Chancellor to make the maximum political mileage out of a Budget that could easily have been a damp squib.
It was a bravura performance and, after months in which they have had little to cheer, it certainly went down well with his backbenchers. The weekend polls will tell us how well it scored with the public. ·
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