Tory MPs cheered wildly as Chancellor George Osborne unveiled his budget proposals, and Iain Duncan Smith punched the air in delight as the government committed itself to a “living wage” by 2020. Yet more dispassionate observers watching from afar sighed in disappointment as the Chancellor took not one of the opportunities he had to reshape the economic and political landscape.
It was a very political budget, and it did not need to be. Five years before an election, the Chancellor could have left his mark by improving the way in which Britain is governed and taxed. He could have given the country an economic budget to transform its future, but instead he decided to score political points.
If circumstances limited his scope for action now, he could at least have laid down markers for the future basis of a sound economy attractive to investment and promising raised living standards. Cutting Corporation tax first to 19% then to 18% is good, but he could have announced his intention to later lower it to the Irish level of 12.5%. That would have sent a clear signal to investors.
The Chancellor made modest changes to tax thresholds, raising the starting level for the basic 20% rate to £10,600 – well below the minimum wage. What he could and should have done was to simplify the tax system by having only two rates, 40% and 20%, and cutting out many exemptions.
His lifting of the minimum wage to £7.20 per hour next year and £9.00 by 2020 used the language of the left’s “living wage,” for a political coup, but the reality will be lost jobs for low earners, 60,000 of them according to the IFS. Osborne’s calculation is that those in minimum wage jobs will thank him, whereas those who now fail to enter minimum wage jobs will not tag him as the author of their misfortune.
Raising the threshold for the death tax (IHT) on housing to £1m for a couple looks good, but will put more pressure on house prices. It should have applied to all assets to avoid sucking money into housing, and the level should have been £2m.
The Chancellor could have helped millions by ending stamp duty on shares. This would have given pension funds a boost, and increased the capital available to firms to expand and create jobs.
Instead Mr Osborne’s budget plans to raise an additional £9bn in tax revenues by 2020, making this a clear tax-increasing budget. He could have proposed a tax-cutting, tax-simplifying, spending-cutting budget. Instead he raised taxes and played politics. He wasted the opportunity, and there may not be another.