Thursday, 20 March 2014


Breaking News: George Osborne has been speaking on the Today programme about the Budget. When asked about tax cuts in future Budgets, the Chancellor said "more difficult decisions are required and we still run too high a deficit" but insisted: "I'm a low tax Conservative".

Earlier, Ed Balls said that there was "so much missing" from the Budget. But the Shadow Chancellor didn't seem able to attack any specifics, beyond the 'Beer and Bingo ad' that is "patronising working people". On the pension annuity changes, Mr Balls said that his mind was not yet made up: "I'm not going to say this is a bad thing."

Good morning. Somebody needs to climb on to Osborne's chariot, ruffle his hair and whisper in his ear 'remember thou art mortal', and quick. Had the Chancellor been a newspaper editor, he could not have written himself better headlines than the ones he's reading this morning. Yet this most self-aware of politicians will know that praise from the Sun, the Mail and the others is a transient thing that can be withdrawn at any moment - and usually is. Still, we should allow him a few moments to bask in the adulation. Consider his position a year ago, when his Budget was packed full of gloom and doom, and his political prospects looked bleak. Or think back to that terrible moment when he was booed at the Paralympics. For a politician who, to his credit, is not defined by an indifference to the opinion of others, it marked a nadir from which which many predicted he would never recover. He will enjoy today.
This morning could not be more different. The Sun: Wingo - Osborne's bonanza for voters - Bank of George. The Times' leader: The History Man, who enjoyed "his best day yet". Daily Mail: George's pension revolution. Its leaderpraises a "first rate Budget" and its "bold strokes". In the Telegraph Peter Oborne hails "A triumph for Mr Osborne". What a difference a year makes, says the FT. Even the Guardian proclaims A serious man.
What now for Mr Osborne? He's got an election to win, and his Budget will prove a tonic for the Tories on the doorstep. As I blogged yesterday, the Tories will wonder what he does for an encore in the pre-election Budget next spring. Has he left himself room for giveaways? Can he justify any, given what he's said about work to be done and the hard truths about the state of the public finances? Given how well things are going, these are problems worth having.
Westminster will now spend some time considering his political prospects. A measure of his standing is whether he can reclaim his pre-omnishambles position as the under-the-bus candidate, the one the party would turn to in the event of a sudden vacancy at the top. But the question that matters is the one Boris-backer Tim Montgomerie answers with a resounding 'no': is he a contender? I was struck by the sight of the number of Tories who turned up on the news channels yesterday to praise the Chancellor, when until recently they were saying unprintable things about him in private. Mr Osborne's political recovery among his colleagues has been accelerating. Yesterday will have done him a power of good.
But given how hard his team is working to promote his cause - as Boris will testify - he might consider that judgment will have to be withheld until next May. He has to win the election first. Tories are looking for evidence that Mr Osborne is distancing himself from the campaign, just in case. If the Tories lose next year, it is hard to see how he survives. If they win, and Mr Cameron carries on, the most common view seems to be that admiration for Mr Osborne will remain limited to his work as Chancellor, rathe than reflect his potential as a future leader. But as today's headlines remind us, things change. And how.
It all sounds too good to be true - and that's the worry. In the FT, Chris Giles has a reminder of the questions that still remain. The OBR calculates that, once the numbers are adjusted to reflect the upswing, borrowing figures are actually worse than a year ago. Chris fears that "politicians might be tempted to take advantage of lower headline borrowing numbers to buy votes". This is a risk for the Conservatives, as well as the public finances: pre-election goodies might be viewed by the electorate as a sign not only that the worst has passed - but also that the economic risks of voting Labour have reduced. In a bidding war to give voters more borrowed money, how do you beat Ed Miliband?

TORY BINGOAfter a horrible performance in the Commons yesterday, Mr Miliband needed all the friends he could get. So he would have been grateful to Grant Shapps for launching a new CCHQ advert on Twitter: "Bingo! Cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy." Mr Miliband's senior aide Stewart Wood observed: "it’s the condescending use of the word 'they' that grates the most." And this was one occasion when no one could accuse Danny Alexander of "going native": on Newsnight, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that he initially thought that it was all a spoof. “I think it is rather patronising and it demeans some rather sensible things.” The Mail gives plenty of space to anger with Mr Shapps. But if the Tory Chairman feared for his job, he will have been heartened by the defence his colleagues have offered on Twitter.
THE OTHER TWITTER STORMEd Balls admitted that yesterday "was a difficult speech for Ed Miliband." The Labour leader had prepared pages of responses to Mr Osborne based on tweets and comments by journalists - but, when these turned out to be wrong, "he had to fill the space by going on and on about Michael Gove’s comments," as Mr Balls admitted in a briefing to journalists. Bet Mr Miliband just loves that. 

It wasn't only a good day for the Chancellor because of the economic news he could point to as vindication. With thicker hair covering up his bald spot, and his waistline a model of lean government (thank the 5:2 diet for that one), the new-look Mr Osborne gets some favourable coverage, led by the Mail's "That really IS growth! Osborne's personal recession is over".ED AND KING JOHN

A few papers pick up on the Chancellor's attack on Ed Miliband. "King John's humbling, centuries ago seems unimaginably distant. A weak leader (pause) who had risen to the top (pause) after betraying his brother (pause) compelled by a gang of unruly barons to sign on the dotted line". At a time when an arts degree is seen as unaffordable largesse, Mr Osborne gave the best advert for some time for the virtues of studying history. Naturally, Quentin Letts can't resist sticking the knife to the Labour leader: "Mr Miliband’s Budget response, almost entirely free of financial content, was the speech of a chef trying to make an omelette without eggs. It was a chopped, half-fried, gabbled nothingness, little more than a smear of slogans. Dreadful."BRANDRETH ON DRUGS

It was Iain Dale's Political Book Awards last night at the Imax. Gyles Brandreth hosted with his usual sparkle - "I'm on drugs. Don't worry - Class A. I'm a Conservative." Lord Ashcroft provided the champagne and the prize money, and used his turn to invite submissions of any unpublished anecdotes about David Cameron for his 2016 biography. Trouble ahead. My colleague Charles Moore won Political Book of the Year for Vol I of his Margaret Thatcher biography (and alerted his publishers he may need a bit more time for Vol II). Lord Dobbs of Netflix rightly won the Lifetime Achievement Award. And Iain Martin, also of this parish, won the debut book of the year for his essential account of the RBS collapse, Making it Happen.
The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 

Latest YouGov poll: Con 33%, Lab 38%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 11%
The Education Secretary's wife is not a fan of Grant Shapps, apparently:
@sarahvine: Just see the Tory Bingo poster. Seriously?!?! BEST COMMENTIn the TelegraphPeter Oborne - A triumph for Mr Osborne, and a triumph for the Coalition, too
Jeremy Warner - Two belated steps in the right direction
Benedict Brogan - Budget 2014: a political recovery for George Osborne – but what does he do next?
Telegraph View - Budget can lead Tories to victory
Best of the rest
Steve Richards - The Chancellor's mind is on politics as well as economics 
Tim Montgomerie - Osborne’s Budget gives the Tories new hope
Rafael Behr - Osborne boasted in the Budget of the return to growth . . . yet Labour’s poll lead remains
Jonathan Freedland - Fluffy little delights unleashed to soften up older voters
David Cameron to attend European Council summit,Downing Street.

0930 Jesse Norman MP, Jeremy Browne MP and Lord McFall at IEA/Taxpayers Alliance post-Budget briefing.

0945 Commons Public Accounts Committee takes evidence on Personal Independence Payments. Committee Room 15, House of Commons.

1200 Preliminary hearing for man accused of sending abusive tweets to MP Stella Creasy. Westminster Magistrates' Court.

1300 Institute for Fiscal Studies post-Budget briefing