Ahead of the first Budget under May’s government, and the first since the Brexit vote, Policy@Manchester Co-Director Professor Andy Westwood sets the scene and shares his predictions on the Chancellor’s approach to the year’s spending priorities.
- We need some action from the Budget, even if the fireworks are likely to be more low key this year
- Though the Treasury appears to have some wriggle room with spending, the deficit is still currently £68 billion
- Like the Industrial Strategy, the Budget trails are all about skills. New ‘T’ Levels’ are already a headline but we should expect more detail on Institutes of Technology come the statement itself
- Regardless of the content, Brexit will continue to set the political tone
When you’re planning a Budget to manage a fragile economy amidst the continuing short and long term challenges of Brexit, the last thing you want is a roll call of pressures to spend your scarce resources. You’ve got a deficit to reduce and books to balance so you’ll dread the call from next door about a list of new priorities. ‘We must tackle the funding crisis in social care and/or the NHS.’ ‘We must soften the cuts to disability benefits.’ ‘We must improve school funding.’ ‘We must do something about business rate rises.’ ‘We should do more for those just about managing…’
You’ll be especially annoyed with fellow ministers that can’t handle financial agreements or policy announcements in their own departments. Step forward Sajid Javid. But there will also be a dim view of Machiavellian manoeuvres from front and back bench colleagues – courting the media in order to gain support for new funds or less severe cuts. All of these provide bigger headlines than most of the things that you actually want to do. Especially if you don’t actually want to do that much.
All of these demands come at a time when the Treasury appears to have some wriggle room with spending. But even though the Resolution Foundation has forecasted a windfall of some £26 billion in tax receipts for Hammond to play with, borrowing is still very high, the deficit is £68 billion this year and the national debt stands at £1.8 trillion.
Economists will be more concerned by these figures than by the promised reforms to technical education or their likely effect.
Low key? Well that’s Spreadsheet Phil’s style and he’s already tried to reduce expectations around at least one of the major fiscal set pieces and he’d no doubt like to do the same with both. Damian Green (probably a decent bet for Chancellor or Home Secretary at some point under May) suggested we should treat ministers more like middle managers in a business. Perhaps as the finance director, Hammond will start using PowerPoint on Budget day?
But we expect the Budget to matter. Whether you’re at the bar or newsagent or garage forecourt waiting to hear how much your pint or fags will cost the next day or you’re a senior civil servant hoping for support for a new policy idea or some help with one that costs more than you’d thought. Whether you’re a newspaper editor ready to run with armies of economists and vox pops you want some action. As Nick Macpherson said in the Financial Times:
‘The Budget is one of those great British events, like the Grand National or Trooping the Colour the subject of TV specials and newspaper supplements. The media needs its story… but just as the media needs an event, so does the chancellor. The Budget is an opportunity to set out the government’s stall for the year ahead. The political theatre this entails has made the office of chancellor of the exchequer the second most important in the government.’
In what is fast becoming a pre-Budget tradition, Hammond, like Osborne before him, pens columns and offers Sunday to interviews to set out his approach. A few announcements are sprinkled here and there. But his main story is that there will be ‘no fiscal fireworks’ instead preferring to build up a £60 billion ‘Brexit’ war chest. Both the Chancellor and his interviewers know that however many Budgets he gets to deliver, all will essentially be about ‘Brexit’ and the deficit.
But even in this context, it’s still the Treasury’s job to think about the long term rather than just to promise to throw money around if and when things take a turn for the worse. What of last month’s Industrial Strategy? The Treasury should be backing it and talking it up and the Budget will show whether that is the case. The territory is already similar – jobs of the future (that aren’t invented yet), the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and following up on the technical education reforms set out by Lord Sainsbury last year. But the Treasury and its Chancellors have always been lukewarm about the idea of major intervention. Let’s see on Wednesday.
Like the Industrial Strategy, the Budget trails are all about skills. New ‘T’ Levels’ are already a headline but we should expect more detail on Institutes of Technology come the statement itself. Some of the briefed £500m will go to them and not just to reverse cuts to FE Colleges experienced during the last few years. There will be strings attached just as there are for the £4.7 billion for research first announced in the Autumn Statement.
In any scenario, Hammond should start spending these funds sooner rather than later, especially if they are to have any impact in this Parliament. He is not a gung ho Brexiteer and is realistic about the long run weaknesses in the UK economy. He is also a shrewd and experienced operator and appreciates the need for action. The Budget’s spectacle requires a confident performance and so too do the febrile politics of the present. And the politics never lets up.
This is where Hammond may find himself acting rather like Gordon Brown and George Osborne, two of his predecessors as Chancellor. Some of the tricky long term policy problems like social care and business rate reform might require a few tax increases and independent reviews. Using Brown’s approach to these matters, look out for some complicated tax changes and calls for big names to take us to the longer grass of future Budgets.
Osborne’s legacy includes the series of mayoral elections in city regions across England. These are places that have long fallen behind in growth and wealth and if he and the PM want to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’, then now is a good time to start. The political opportunity of taking further territory from Labour will be equally hard to resist. So expect a few high profile skills or research facilities or even further devolution deals. None may be quite on the scale of a ‘Crick’, a ‘Royce’ or a ‘Devo Manc’ or HS3, but they will be there.
So however much Philip Hammond would like to strike a less flashy and sober tone on either the deficit or Brexit, he’ll still revert to type on Budget day. Like Osborne and Brown, he’ll make announcements, crack a few jokes and put on a show. Along the way he’ll take a few pot shots at Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, the Lib Dems and the SNP.
But like all of his predecessors as Chancellor he’ll most want to reassert Treasury control of the big issues and maximise their political opportunities along the way. There will still be fireworks of some kind.