Chancellor ‘trying to dance us merrily up a hill which is simply too steep’

15 March 2023, 16:06

Andrew Marr gives his view on the Budget
Andrew Marr gives his view on the Budget. Picture: LBC
Andrew Marr

By Andrew Marr

What’s the big politics of the Budget? What will it mean in a few months’ time? Well, it won't be about detailed numbers. As always it will be about how we feel.

That's why the Chancellor today was working so hard to put a warm, optimistic spin on the year ahead.

The British economy, he told us, was proving the doubters wrong: the costs of debt were going down, mortgage rates were lower and inflation had peaked.

He was able to appeal to the Office of Budget Responsibility (the same body cold-shouldered by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng when they crashed the economy in the autumn) and confirm that Britain would meet the prime minister's aim of halving inflation this year - and more - and that we'd avoid recession. All good.

Read more: Jeremy Hunt's 'back to work' Budget boost for old and young - as UK to avoid recession this year

Read more: What the budget means for you: Jeremy Hunt unveils help with pensions, childcare and the cost of fuel

And if that was all then, along with help on pensions and childcare, Jeremy Hunt could be sure of great headlines tomorrow.

But that isn't all.

Let's go back to the OBR. Most of us don't judge the economy on what we're told by politicians but, once again, on how we feel. And here, the OBR brings grim news.

We are going to face the highest tax burden since the late 1940s, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War - we will notice that - plus the biggest two-year squeeze on living standards on record.

If you want an explanation for the rash of public sector strikes taking place all around us, there it is. This wasn't a budget for teachers or junior doctors.

That's not to say that the Chancellor did nothing useful today, but rather that he is trying to dance us merrily up a hill which is simply too steep. No wonder the Labour leader Keir Starmer sounded almost triumphal in his pessimism.

It remains very hard to the Tories to turn things around by the time of the next election although Rishi Sunak is proving to be a very effectively hyperactive Prime Minister and I think we can expect a really tough and exciting political contest between now now and next autumn.

On the detail, the most important announcement in the budget was the extra money for childcare. That was dictated by raw politics.

Labour's Bridget Phillipson pointed out last week that in the 100 most marginal conservative constituencies in England, parents of children under 11 make up more than a quarter of the population. They vote. That's really all you need to know.

Could this be the beginning of a shift in attention and resources away from older voters and towards the younger generations who have missed out on affordable housing, affordable child care and have little hope, at the moment, of a decent pension? Let's hope so.

Some criticise the Tories for swiping another Labour idea - because Labour also want to expand support for childcare. But this means Labour, thinking hard about those 100 constituencies, now needs to sharpen, upgrade and properly fund its offer on childcare.

That's how good policy advances – a strong competition between the parties to make the best offer about something the public wants. This is politics working properly. And it's very good news, I'd say for parents.

This wasn't a budget that changes the political dial or takes Britain in a radically new direction - thank goodness you might say - but more of a progress report, at a time when we are still stuck in the mud.

If I was a teacher, and I wasn't on strike, and I was marking this it would be a B-plus, with a scribble at the end - to the country as much as to Jeremy Hunt - saying, “must do better”.