Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Tories prepare for budget realism..

Good morning. The Treasury has done some overnight product placement, but there's no single big measure revealed in the papers that was worth spreading around. Instead you pays your money you takes yer choice. The full Budget trailer list is below. George Osborne must have kept a goodie in reserve however (a temporary cut to income tax was doing the rounds on Twitter last night). The question is: will it be a show stopper? Expectations have been not just depressed but crushed. As the FT (£) reports, and I pointed out in my column, even the Chancellor's Tory critics now mutter that he has no choice but to soldier on. With Treasury Budget veteran James Bowler now overseeing the process, the chances of a shambles have been sharply reduced. For Mr Osborne, the Budget will be an exercise in political reconstruction. His hope must be that his very grimness will restore his credibility: by standing firm and not flinching from the pain, he does the right thing. Maybe one day someone will give him credit for it (possibly on Twitter, which he has joined this morning). Jeremy Warner and I will be taking part in a studio debate on the Budget presented by Sumant Bhatia before and after the Chancellor's speech on the Telegraph website, and you can also follow all of today's developments as they happen on our live blog.
Today's Budget could well be overshadowed by events in Cyprus (follow our live coverage here). In an act of spirited defiance, the nation'sparliament voted yesterday to reject an international bail-out packagewhich would have seen it have to impose a tax on bank deposits (or rather, swap deposits for bank shares). Not even the ruling party backed the move. Germany's finance minister has warned that Cyprus is "insolvent" and that without European funds, Cypriot banks may never re-open. Unless the Russians ride to the rescue, and the Cypriot finance minister is in Moscow today, the future looks very bleak indeed. There is some talk, unverified at present, of extending the island's bank holiday until the 26th, but it isn't time Cyprus lacks, it's money. The eurozone is at crisis point.
All of that leaves the Chancellor facing an even grimmer future. Given a possible Europen implosion, the growth rates which his Budget will be based on will probably be on the optimistic side again. A return to growth required a healing Europe. In fact the scars are getting deeper.With white rabbits being pulled from hats looking unlikely, here's what we do know:
  • There are a further £2.5bn of cuts coming from Whitehall Budgets (Telegraph). Significantly, the big beasts, including Theresa May will not face further cuts (Sun)
  • The £10,000 personal tax allowance will be brought forward one year, arriving in 2014 (Guardian)
  • Beer duty escalator abolished, removing prospective 6p per pint rise (Sun)
  • Fuel Duty rise postponed (Independent)
  • Armed forces to receive 1.5pc pay rise (Telegraph)
  • Child Trust Funds to be convertible to ISAs (Mail)
  • Housing market propped up through an extension of New Build and support for developers, part of £2.5bn of infrastructure spending (FT)
  • Flat rate pension brought forward one year (Telegraph)
This is hardly anyone's wishlist, but the Chancellor will look to make a virtue from a necessity and emphasise that this is a continuity Budget. No Plan B, no Plan A+, more of the same and no panic. For the Times (£) it's a tough back Budget", the FT (£) labels it one which relies upon an "outbreak of realism", and one MP approvingly describes it to that paper as "the most boring Budget ever".   
But while more of the same was the only option the Chancellor was likely to take, the Budget will also be an unwelcome reminder of the litany of broken pledges made on the deficit and the debt, the failure of the Coalition to satisfy its very reason for being. That hurts George Osborne and it hurts the party. Last night's ITV and ComRes poll put George's economic trust rating at -40, only one point above Ed Balls'. One year ago, the difference was 14 points in the Chancellor's favour. While, asMary Riddell points out, this Budget will test both men, you sense that it is Mr Osborne with the greater problem - as Allister Heath points out, the Chancellor has defined his core mission, but many in his part worry that he seems to be struggling even under his own terms.
Jim Sheridan's attack on sketch-writers, "parasitical elements" of the press who "abuse their position here" by "hiding behind their pens and calling people names" has prompted some contrite glances from the gallery this morning. Our Michael Deacon pays tribute to the "noblest parliamentarian of this or any other era", while a chastened Quentin Lettsalso pays tribute to "one of the sketchwriting guild's best clients" (the Sunis less impressed, commenting "so this is what the Ministry of Truth will be like").
Yet remarks which would ordinarily simply provoke ridicule take on a more sinister edge in the wake of the deal on press regulation. Opposition in Fleet Street seems to be hardening. The Spectator is out of any new system, Private Eye looks to be going the same way, and as the Guardianreports, secondary clauses on legal costs even when cases are won are causing significant worries for  beleaguered local newspapers. Bloggers also seem to be covered by the new reforms, but as Guido Fawkes asks in the Sun, how do you regulate the internet? Even the man who first advocated a Royal Charter solution, Francis Bennion QC, writes for us that the compromise deal is a long way from what he originally proposed. Publish and be damned? It looks like many are headed towards that position.
Divide and rule doesn't seem to work. Following yesterday's childcare allowance announcement, the Prime Minister simply seems to have succeeded in offending stay at home mothers by suggesting that their choice is easier and less deserving of government support. The Mail's front-page headline is "an insult to stay at home mothers" and quotes Tim Loughton saying that "the Government needs to show that all parents are important". Writing for us, Rowan Pelling adds that it was drawn up on a Notting Hill napkin:
"I have long wondered if the current Government isn’t a giant hoax, orchestrated by a crack team of satirists. Now I’m certain. What else would explain the risible decision to axe one fair way of offering financial relief to all families with dependent children and to replace it with two iniquitous measures?"
The clamour for the resignation of Sir David Nicholson, already deafening on the Tory benches, grows louder still this morning after yesterday's issuance of a correction to evidence which he gave to the Public Accounts Committee on Monday. He had claimed that Gary Walker, former head of United Lincolnshire NHS Trust, had not identified himself as a whistleblower in a July 2009 letter to him.Yesterday, Mr Walker produced the letter contradicting this account in his own evidence to the Health Select Committee. As we report, this led to Sir David writing to Margaret Hodge to correct his earlier evidence.
At last there is an official estimate of the number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants expected to arrive later this year. Instead of a flood, it's a trickle. An academic paper published by the Department for Communities and Local Government which was slipped out in 2011 puts the total at the curiously precise figure of 12,769, less than a quarter of MigrationWatch's 50,000 figure. However, as we report, Eric Pickles is having none of it, insisting that "I don't have any confidence in [the estimate]  whatsoever. The truth is nobody really knows." Highly reassuring. 
One hundred leading academics have written to the Telegraph and the Independent complaining that Michael Gove's reforms, which ask primary school children to learn by rote, ask "too much, too young" and will rob them of their "ability to think". Mr Gove's plans include teaching children history in the correct order and requiring them to spell words correctly, as we report. The Education Secretary's mob are not happy, muttering that the signatories are "anti-knowledge" and pointing out that the letter's organiser Terry Wrigley, a visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, has previously written for the Socialist Workerand the Socialist Review. Never mind the pupils, it's the teachers I'd be worried about.
According to an Economist survey picked up by the Mail, trust in institutions in Britain is at an all time low, with political participation lower even than in Palestine and Iraq. The new kind of politics - it's going well.
Described in the Richard Kay column as a "lags hero", Chris Huhne has been warmly greeted at Wandsworth prison, he reports. Mr Huhne has "become a bit of a hero figure" amongst fellow inmates and has even been given chocolate bars as presents, he reports.
General Sir Nicholas Houghton has been unveiled as the new Chief of the Defence Staff. An Oxford graduate who was our most senior military man in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, Sir Nicholas is described by today'sIndependent as "on-message" so far as defence cuts are concerned.

Chris Bryant pines for the old days:

@ChrisBryantMP: "It seems an awful lot of tomorrow's budget has already been leaked. Hugh dalton had to resign for far less." 


In the Telegraph

Mary Riddell - This Budget is D-Day for the man who would be Chancellor
Best of the Rest

Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) - No turning back. And no rabbits from hats

07:30 am: PCS strike. Strike by members of the Public and Commercial Services union, timed to coincide with today's Budget.
08:00 am: Pre-Budget meeting of Cabinet. 10 Downing Street.
09:30 am: Bank of England publishes minutes of March monetary policy meeting.
09:30 am: Council of Mortgage Lenders releases its lending estimate for February.
0930 am: Unemployment. Latest unemployment figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
10:30 am: Children's minister Edward Timpson gives evidence on child sex grooming to Commons Home Affairs Committee. Committee Room 8, House of Commons, London.
12:00 pm: Prime Minister's Questions. House of Commons, London.
12:30 pm: Chancellor George Osborne will deliver his Budget. House of Commons.
07:30 pm: Boris Johnson, Lionel Barber and Lakshmi Mittal attend FT ArcelorMittal Boldness in Business Awards Dinner. Royal Institute of British Architects, London.