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It that all there is?

March 8th 2024

Did you know that Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak have a ‘long-term plan for growth’? It’s all very exciting. Over the long-term they are going to cut your national insurance back to zero! Yes obviously, fair’s fair, they’ll have to both put your income tax up and freeze the tax thresholds to pay for it. But still, pretty cool huh? In the long-term, of course.


The truth is that it is vanishingly unlikely that there will be much of a ‘long-term’ for either the PM or the Chancellor - given the polls and all that. But Jeremy Hunt did tell the Commons this week that he was ‘an optimist’, so it’s only natural that he should be hesitant to meekly accept the thrashing that is predicted by the data. It is that roguish spirit of hopefulness, one imagines, that also inspired him to brag about Britain’s ‘world-beating’ growth at a time when we are, technically, in an actual recession.

It’s easy to mock this week’s Budget because this week’s Budget doesn’t matter. We’re not saying it doesn’t matter that we are all poorer than we should be. Or that it doesn’t matter whether public services will get the investment they need to not collapse around us. No. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter politically - because this exhausting, fourteen-year soap opera is almost at a close.

The public can see that, they greeted the Budget with neither anger nor gratitude - merely apathy and slight sense of bewilderment that the Government is still there at all. The Labour Party can see it, which is why they were able to shrug-off the theft of one of their few actual policies with a shrug and a wry smile. Tory MPs can see it, which is why they all look so sad and distracted at the moment and are spending so much time on LinkedIn.

What does matter is the context for the budget and for the weak beer that was in it. Jeremy Hunt would have loved to have done something bigger, something better. Jeremy Hunt would love to be remembered as something more than the clean-up act for Liz Truss’s suicide march through the British economy. He would have liked, ideally, to have slashed income tax and to have emulated his and Sunak’s heroes of the eighties rather than fiddling with NICs like a mid-ranking accountant. But he couldn’t do that. Because we don’t have any money.

This country is poor. We are up to our eyes in debt and we aren’t really growing. This is a result of political choices and external calamities and a little bit of bad luck but it is, unfortunately, the state that we are in. And the dilemma for any chancellor in the immediate future is that there is no straightforward path to fixing the fundamental problem of our relative poverty.

Maybe we should rip up the self-imposed ‘fiscal rules’ and borrow - either to invest (hello securenomics) or to slash tax (hello, again, Kwasinomics). But to do either is to risk the wrath of the global markets and to add yet more pain to the mortgage-payers who are the backbone of our economy. It is not for the want of it that we lack bold economic strategy, it is that every bet we might choose to make has potentially hideous downside.

You can’t blame Jeremy Hunt for delivering a deeply uninspiring and unexciting Budget. Yes, he is a man naturally well suited to doing so but his options were - to put it mildly - limited. Maybe in the Autumn (for who but the most reckless of us would want to go to the electorate on the basis of this week’s offering) he will do something dramatic but there is every chance that he still will not be able to.

And, either way, Hunt will not be in office to take either the blame or the credit whichever way such a gamble goes. This was the moment the Government had to seize if they were to have any hope of a long-term at all. They failed to do so. The fact that this is as much the fault of Sunak and Hunt’s predecessors as it is theirs’ is unlikely to save them at the ballot box.

This is all they’ve got. And it isn’t good enough anymore.