I am highly unlikely to have the time on Wednesday to unpack the Chancellor’s so called ‘Emergency’ Budget, so I thought I’d give a few runners and riders ahead of the inevitable media storm that is due to be unleashed.
First, a brief note for those wondering why we have an emergency budget in the first place. The short answer is that we effectively have a change of government – the Chancellor’s budget from March was put forward by the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition. A clear Conservative majority has enabled George Osborne to put forward the proposals set out in the Conservative manifesto, which includes the commitment to further spending restraint. As you may recall, the election campaign narrative was essentially between the Conservatives saying we need to get spending under control, the progressive parties saying that austerity doesn’t work, and the Lib Dems saying you want to land somewhere in the middle. The Chancellor will now spell out exactly what spending restraint will look like.
Secondly, let’s be wise as we untangle the subsequent media narrative. The Conservative MPs will be the best briefed – the government will ensure they have the little snippets of good news to include in their personal statements welcoming the budget. Opposition MPs obviously have no idea what the government is proposing to do, but that won’t stop them preparing statements to be released the minute Harriet Harman rises to her feet to oppose the Budget George Osborne has just presented. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what the opposition’s objections will be:
Labour will insist that the Budget is for the rich, not the poor; that the cuts go too far and too deep; and will insist that valued public services (especially the NHS) have been put at risk by government under-investment.
The SNP (whom we must remember and acknowledge are now the third party in Parliament) will decry ‘Tory austerity’; claim that Scotland never voted for their budget; and threaten that if the Budget goes through, it will only increase the calls for Scottish independence.
The Lib Dems meanwhile will have a clear narrative already worked out – they will take the credit for any increase in the threshold at which one begins to pay income tax, and will highlight in general terms that the budget would not have been as severe if the nation had voted for another coalition.
The other parties meanwhile have their own interests – the Northern Irish parties and Plaid Cymru will be interested in specific investment to their regions, while the Greens will take an even stronger line than Labour in opposing austerity.
I mention this to warn well in advance that we’re not going to get anything constructive from the immediate reaction on social media. The opposition parties will have released their statements before they have even heard the Budget, much less taken the time to digest it and work through the detail and consequences. They have worked out their party narrative and will put this first. It is a little discouraging that this is the case, but we shouldn’t be surprised that they are not welcoming the Budget with open arms – they are called ‘the Opposition’ with good reason!
That said – you will get some thoughtful responses, because a good number of politicians are not politicos, but instead are good public servants, who will care about the detail, and care about the impact on their constituency specifically, and the country generally. It will also be fascinating to see the leadership contenders in Labour and the Lib Dems also set out their distinct responses to the Budget – how crucial could this be, especially with the final (potentially decisive) ballots being cast in the Liberal Democrat Leadership Election?
You will also see opposition on specific policies from some Conservative backbenchers. This will inevitably be portrayed as early evidence that David Cameron will not be able to manage his small majority in the House of Commons. I completely disagree – one of the things that I am most proud of in the Conservative party, is that debate is not stifled. While we obviously aim to be right first time, we are human enough to recognise our own humanity – our capacity to make less optimal choices whether they were previously evident or not. I think it should be celebrated, not decried, that backbenchers have the means to hold the government accountable for the budget put forward, and celebrated all the more when the government listens and takes note. That the government allows their backbenchers such freedom is far from a sign of weakness – it is a reassuring sign that the governing party is capable of providing strong government that is restrained by the concerns of their backbenchers – which seems to me an optimal balance between a government empowered for action, and protecting the rights of individuals.
If I can find a spare evening I will venture a few thoughts on the policy detail of the Budget. Without seeing the detail however, I will welcome a trend which I hope will be clear – that the government is committed to both eliminating our immediate spending deficit and then reducing (and ideally eliminating) our national debt. While the detail remains to be worked out, our biggest commitment has to be to live within our means, and not to lumber future generations with our unpaid debts.