...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Day 5190: A Budget of Signposts and Pitfalls

Wednesday Budget Day Election Day Minus Forty-Nine:

So, for the last time in the first fixed term Parliament, Master Gideon did a thing.

Liberal Democrat policies once more featured strongly (and anonymously) in the form of future rises in the personal allowance towards the minimum wage and a promise of an end in sight of austerity.

But most of what he did was mess things about. A little. He cut some taxes a little; cut some spending a little less; made the tax system a little more generous to favoured industries/more complicated with more loopholes. And made several bad jokes. Mostly about the unfortunate Mr Milipede's kitchen arrangements.

When he wasn't cracking our sides with his rib-ticklers, he gave us not so much substance as a full meal, more a sort of taster's trolley to whet our appetites for the shape of Parliamentary things to come.

Most of the actual tax arrangements are, of course, post-dated, setting the sort of traps for a future Labour Chancer– in the decreasingly likely event of there being such a person – just as Mr Allstar Darling did for him, with the "for one month only" 50% tax rate (which did indeed successfully blow up in Gideon's face). The promise of a little less squeezing of the pips on higher rate taxpayers (in the assumption that the Venn diagram of higher rate taxpayers and Tory voters is quite a large overlap) gives a sweetie to his base today that might reward a second time if incoming Hard Labour have to reverse it to make ends meet after the election and post Financial Review. Likewise, the £1000 tax free interest is a giveaway to the "haves" that makes the tax system yet more needlessly complicated (with interest rates at ½% you can "have" up to two-hundred grand in the bank before paying any tax on the interest). And aside from the Chancer's personal delight in being able to string two catchphrases together do we really need yet more money injected into the housing bubble? I'm just surprised he didn't rename the newly in-out-shake-it-all-about ISA his "long term economic savings plan"!

Meanwhile he sketched out a – suspiciously "Coalition flavoured" – direction of travel, adopting that Liberal Democrat pledge to bring an end to austerity and offer a promise of better days to come. His compromise of beginning to increase spending on public services "after four more years" falling mid-way between the Lib Dem position of "after three more years" and the Tory one of "after hell freezes over". Cutting the lifetime allowance for payments into a pension was also a Libby Demmy way of raising a few more tax dollars from the richer end of the spectrum.

This is, as we know, typical Tory strategy: use the Lib Dems as a sort of THINK TANK from Planet Nice to generate socially acceptable policy and use this to detox the brand (while pretending to smile and nod along to the wingnuts, and occasionally unleash a "Go Home Van" to keep them drooling happily).

Just because he's EXACTLY as scary-right-wing as his Romulan haircut suggests, don't ever think Gideon isn't PRACTICAL.

(And, in many ways, another Coalition is actually the best way for GIDEON to keep his own job: if they lose, he'll have to come third to Boris and Theresa in the ensuing leadership bloodbath; if they win on their own, then he might have to think up some policies of his own without Danny to hold his crayons for him!)

And look at how he did bang on about how the Coalition had brought economic success.

Obviously that's a GREAT advert for letting the Tories RUIN it by running the country off the rails on their own!

Being in Coalition has given him GREAT COVER for making it all up as he went along (or in fact letting Nick and Vince and Danny make most of it up for him, and then copying their homework). For all that Gideon the Chancer is a man who's made much political capital out of sticking to "Plan A", it should be apparent that we are by now on something like the "F Plan" (the diet nobody sticks to) or the "G-Plan" (given his wooden delivery). Whatever, he's in danger of running out of letters!

"Plan A" only lasted about a year. That was the "stick to Alistair Darling's disastrous plan to cut all capital spending" Plan. Fortunately the widely underrated Mr Danny managed to persuade Gideon to go on an Obama-esque Keynesian spending spree. That would have been Plan B. Plan C was the disaster of the OMNISHAMBLES budget, quickly walked back to Plan D. The REAL disaster being that budget had contained some attempts to simplify some of the tax system, and there's no way Gideon was going to try THAT again! And even last year we were still on Austerity Eternal of Plan E, but it appears that that didn't test well with the voters.

The only thing "Long Term" about the Conservatories "Long Term Economic Plan" is how long they've been ramming the stupid message down our throats!

Not that Hard Labour have much to crow about.

(It won't stop them. That Mr Allstar Darling was on the radio last weekend crowing about his own last budget – because, as he himself admitted, nobody else would – and saying that the Coalition's plan has arrived us exactly where he predicted the economy would be… slightly overlooking the fact that this must mean his own plan would have missed the target by miles and landed us in much worse straits! And also rather undermining Hard Labour’s case that they’d have done anything at all DIFFERENT!)

But in the absence of having bothered to pay any attention to what Gideon was saying, Mr Milipede delivered the speech he'd memorised anyway. I KNOW it's the hardest job in politics, replying to the budget with no notes or notice, but do you think he could at least TRY to remain on topic?

And if "long term economic plan" is becoming the most BORING big fib in British politics, then surely there's some sort of mutant hybrid of Godwin's Law being spawned on the other side: "the longer a debate goes on the closer to 100% gets the probability of Mr Milipede claiming it will lead to the privatisation/dismantling (the meaning of these terms being indistinguishable to his audience) of the NHS".

So today Mr Milipede invented the Tories "secret plan to fight inflation"…

No, sorry, that's "secret plan to wreck the NHS"; it's just he's so clearly and painfully obviously been watching too many episodes of his "West Wing" box set. It's all that free time he has not doing any work on actual policies.

But PLAGIARISM, Ed? Again?

I mean, bless him, he's only got one trump card, but he does keep playing it… in fact, it looks like he's only got one card AT ALL, at least only one that doesn't say "the same as the Tories but, er, nice" (see also what Rachel the Reever wants to do with welfare and Tristram the, er, Hunt wants to do with Education.) But it's clear that his schoolboy debate club tactics are no good when the country is calling for a STRATEGY.

The worst part of his day was probably the moment where you can see the dawning realisation creep into his sad eyes that the Conservatories are going to win, to beat him, beat him probably quite a lot. It was probably the time when he laughed at the second or third second kitchen joke.

Even until recently I had expected Labour to improve, and the Tories at best to hold their ground in numbers of seats. How could the Conservatories do anything OTHER than go backwards after the PAIN and the AUSTERITY and the BEDROOM TAX? But today, Miliband looked like a loser. No, worse, he looked like HE believed he was a loser, and that sort of thing is INFECTIOUS.

And Gideon looked like HE thought he was a WINNER.

Because Master Gideon's real talent is luck. The sort of luck that lets him get away with it.

Because this recovery isn't really a result of ANY plan – long term or otherwise – by this Government. It's mainly driven by the Saudis response to American fracking, pumping oil like it's going out of fashion (because it is!) driving down energy prices.

What the Coalition has actually done is a series of smart economic tacks across the wind, sheltering most people from the worst of the storm of the recession, while the rest of Europe has been battered by the ongoing Euro crisis, and while the rise of China and India drove a huge spike in energy prices and food prices, all of which delayed any chance of real recovery. We’ve been keeping more people in work – at the price of depressing earnings; keeping down homes repossessed; shifting the burden of taxation a few notches up the income scale. When the Lib Dems were stronger, we also kept benefits rising with inflation.

That doesn't mean that the austerity was WRONG or didn't work. If nothing else, thanks to the Coalition Britain was at least in a position where we COULD take advantage when the wind changed in our favour.

But what we've also done, again largely Lib Dem policies, is laid the groundwork for FUTURE economic strength: the pupil premium, and add to that free school meals, already giving kids a better education; the apprenticeships scheme, not just getting young people into jobs, delivering two million more quality training places, but kicking off a total reappraisal of the worth of vocational verses academic further education; even the hated tuition fees cum sort of graduate tax has delivered more young people from less well-off backgrounds into higher education.

You can, as Cap'n Clegg is fond of saying, still do a lot of GOOD with a bit of goodwill and three-quarters of a trillion pounds!

All of which means THIS is where the fight gets DESPERATE.

Liberal Democrats, we might have thought that we could go quietly into Opposition, sit the next Parliament out, lick our wounds – which will be many – and rebuild our tattered reputation under the cosy leadership of Saint Tim, while enjoying the no-doubt-hilarious spectacle of a minority Labour administration giving new definition to being propped up with a (lack of) confidence and supply (of demands) from the SNP.


The Tories are already planning how to wreck democracy: that infamous "black and white ball" they held, that wasn't to raise funds for the General Election. They've already GOT the funds to fight the General Election. THAT was to raise funds for the SECOND General Election.

Remember, our slogan is "Stronger Economy; Fairer Society; Opportunity for All".

It's NOT because we'd deliver a fairer society than the Tories and a stronger economy than Labour. (Though we would. But that's OBVIOUS.)

It's because we'd deliver a FAIRER society than LABOUR and a STRONGER economy than THE TORIES!

Labour: the Party of I.D.iot cards, 90 day detention, dog whistles on immigration, cutting benefits for young people, introducing ATOS, introduction Work Capability Assessments, introducing tuition fees (yes, that burns), cash for peerages, cash for Bernie Eccleston, Iraq… no WAY are Labour the Party of "fairer society".

But equally, the Tories: the Party of throwing our relationship with our single biggest trading partner into doubt, the Party of toying with GBrexit, the Party of slashing immigration and all the benefits that come with it, the Party of slashing benefits(!), the Party of tax cuts for Dead Millionaires (promised again, this week), the Party of blowing dirty great wads on Trident… no WAY are the Tories the Party of "stronger economy".

People, if you DON'T want the LUNATICS to take over the asylum, if you don't want the drawbridge pulled up and the curtain run down on five centuries of Britain being the greatest trading nation on Earth, we CANNOT let the Tories win! Labour are about to surrender. It's up to the Liberal Democrats.

No pressure, then.

In this post:

Master Gideon = Gideon known as George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Mr Allstar Darling = Alistair Darling, his Labour predecessor
Rachel the Reever = Rachel Reeves, Labour Shadow Welfare Minister
Tristram the Hunt = Tristram Hunt, Labour Shadow Education Minister
Mr Milipede, reverting to Mr Miliband = Ed Miliband, probably-doomed leader of the Labour Party
Cap'n Clegg = Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Mr Danny = Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary (i.e. second in charge) at the Treasury
Mr Vince = Dr Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and widely respected as Lib Dem economic spokesperson and stand-in leader

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