Paul Linford: The time for a political game-changer may now have passed

The Journal's political columnist, Paul Linford, on why George Osborne may pay for his refusal to pull rabbits from hats in his Budget

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire George Osborne
George Osborne

Back in 2007, the then Shadow Chancellor George Osborne changed the course of political history by announcing, in a speech at the Tory party conference, plans to increase the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m.

Such was the Viagra-like effect on the party’s poll ratings that the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, jettisoned plans for a snap election he would almost certainly have won, and his reputation never recovered.

Would there be a similar game-changer from Mr Osborne in this week’s pre-election Budget, a coup-de-theatre which would break the long deadlock in the opinion polls which has seen the two main parties neck-and-neck on around 33% of the vote apiece?

Given the Chancellor’s previous form, expectations were certainly high in the run-up to Wednesday’s statement. But alas for him, the answer seems to be no.

Budgets generally fall into two categories – those which look good in the immediate aftermath but which then swiftly unravel, and those which seem rather dull on first appearance but which later come to be viewed as shrewd and statesmanlike.

This week’s Budget looks to have been one of the latter, a safety-first package which pointedly eschewed the rabbit-out-of-the-hat routines we have come to expect at this point in the political cycle.

But while Mr Osborne can be applauded for resisting the temptation to fund the kind of pre-election giveaways that have characterised some of his predecessors, it nevertheless represents something of a gamble on his part.

Sure, if the Tories go on to win on May 7, it will look judicious. But if they fail, he will more than likely be blamed for spurning their last big opportunity to spring a vote-winning surprise.

Much discussion in this part of the world has centred on whether this was, as it has been billed in some quarters, a ‘Budget for the North.’

There were no fewer than 15 mentions of the North in Wednesday’s statement and whatever Mr Osborne can justifiably be accused of, he certainly cannot be accused of ignoring the Northern regions in the way that New Labour routinely did.

But on the question of whether the Chancellor’s lofty rhetoric about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will be matched by real economic progress, the jury remains very much out.

Northern council leaders certainly seem unconvinced. The leader of Leeds City Council described Mr Osborne as “no friend of the North” while his Manchester counterpart said bluntly that the North could not afford another five years of the Tories.

In the North East, the suspicion has always been that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was in effect a ‘Leeds-Manchester powerhouse’ and Wednesday’s Budget did little to dispel that widely-held perception.

The Chancellor’s package included a devolution deal for West Yorkshire and a promise to set out plans for a High Speed 3 rail network linking Leeds to Manchester.

Mr Osborne also confirmed that he will allow the new Greater Manchester combined authority to retain 100% of future business rate growth within the region while denying a similar deal for the North-East.

Against that, the announcement that Newcastle University is to get £10m for its Science Central project to use data to improve drugs and treatment is, while welcome in itself, pretty small beer.

In pure electoral terms, Mr Osborne will be hoping his emphasis on regional economic growth will sway enough voters in the key Northern marginals, but since there are very few of those in the North East itself, its impact in this part of the world is likely to be distinctly limited.

And if the Budget appears to have done little to shift opinion within this region, neither does it seem likely to do so across the UK as a whole.

In terms of the essential economic dividing lines between the parties, it’s a case of as you were. Labour will borrow more and cut the deficit less, but there will be major public spending cuts whoever wins, even if neither main party will say exactly where.

And as for that political game-changer, well, perhaps the time for those has now passed.

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