Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Will Osborne spring a surprise?

Good Budget Day. Will there be a populist surprise? Robert Peston says he thinks so but doesn't know what (funny the way on Today he allowed himself to suggest what Nick Robinson might be saying on tonight's news - bet Nick loved that). James Kirkup thinks that George Osborne has been too quiet. Most of the Tories I've spoken to predict an unexpected crowd-pleaser of some sort. The Treasury have talked down the prospect of any action on tax rates to please the 40p rate brigade. You might well imagine him setting out his ambition for rates after the election, a spot of ankle-showing that costs nothing. You might even imagine a penny off now, more to come later scenario. Except that costs money and would go against the message about more work to be done on the deficit, not to mention Lib Dem opposition. The Times records more Tory backbench anger about the Chancellor (and Dave's) approach to tax: specifically they claim he is ignoring potential Tory voters, because a briefing from the Chief Whip sent to Tory MPs makes clear that if you earn more than £42,000 your gains fall away sharply. "This shows they are hitting the middle," one unnamed MP tells the paper. The Mail rages against the "Mixed signals from a divided Coalition" in its leader. The Treasury briefed out the new twelve-sided £1 coin, complete with picture and talk of a leap into the future, although everyone seems to be majoring on the retro look and the prospect that it might delight nostalgic Ukip voters.
I've blogged on the messages Mr Osborne needs to get out today - to the country, the middle classes, Tory MPs, Lib Dems and - crucially - those eyeing him up as a future Tory leader. The politics is always the fun bit, and there will be plenty today, as Mr Osborne sets up the arguments for the election. The FT, coincidentally, flags up that he is likely to set out detail of the welfare cap that he will put to the Commons, inviting Labour to step into his trap (though isn't the point about traps is that they work best when they are a surprise?). Mr Osborne has a lot to do today: he has to reassure the country, explain why, despite the critics, he is on the side of the middle classes, reassure his MPs that he has a plan for the election, keep all options open for after the election, and burnish his credentials as the obvious successor to David Cameron. Easy.
The backdrop to the budget is provided by warnings from Mark Carney and George Osborne. The Governor of the Bank of England yesterday warned that "excessive risk-taking" by households and traders could undermine the return to growth, and said that the Bank faces a "tremendous burden" trying to regulate markets and household borrowing. The warning is a timely one: Rupert Harrison may have been right to predict that the economy would go gangbusters a year ago, but the recovery remains a fragile one. George Osborne will attempt to use this to his advantage; as the Guardian details, the Chancellor will claim to be presenting a budget for economic security, avoiding the "Dutch auction" that Jeremy Browne warned against last week. The Conservative hope is that the public will both be grateful for what's come of the recovery - but also think the economy remains too precarious to return it to Labour's hands. In the FT, there's a useful checklist of what to expect today (no alarms and no surprises). There's a few more nuggets in The Sun: the front page details that the  Chancellor will lower rates on bingo halls, another victory for Robert Halfon - ministers call him "Britain's most expensive MP", and they rather have a point. Mr Osborne will also unveil a plan to exempt all emergency workers who die in the line of duty from inheritance tax.
Mark Carney was a busy man yesterday, and also had time to announce a comprehensive reshuffle of the Bank. His changes aim to create "one bank" and coordinate the Bank's functions. Nemat Shafik will oversee banking and markets in a newly created role. Known as "Minouche", she is 51 and has spent the last four years as deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The FT has a useful profile.
As you can follow on the live blog, it's been a turbulent day in the Crimea: Russia announced the formal annexation of Crimea, and a Ukrainian soldier has reportedly been shot dead by pro-Kremlin forces storming an army base. So the dilemma over exactly what to do has ratcheted up a notch. William Hague has insisted that Britain will push for the toughest possible sanctions against Russia, even suggesting that Russia could be permanently excluded form the G8. But it's not that simple: as the FT details, Britain finds itself caught between the hawkish tendencies of America and eastern Europe and the cautious instincts of the rest of Europe - led by Germany, hardly a country we can afford to side against.
It's been completely swamped by events elsewhere, but there was a significant development in the battle over Scotland's future yesterday. Labour has pledged an increase in powers for Scotland to try and shore up support for the union ahead of the independence referendum. Labour's proposals include greater control over income tax and some welfare spending such as housing benefit, with the party's Scottish leader Johann Lamont saying that these were "part of our positive alternative to the narrow politics of nationalism." It's almost identical to what David Cameron offered last week in Edinburgh - is Alex Salmond going to get devo-max without needing to get anyone to vote for it?PICKLES NOT BOTHERED BY OLD ETONIAN BRIGADE
After the criticism from Michael Gove and Baroness Warsi, an unlikely source has stuck up for Old Etonians. Eric Pickles told LBC: "I don’t think you should judge people differently one where they came from, whether they came from Eton...I am not even slightly worried about people inside the party who went to Eton."
Further proof of the collapse in Britain's standing: ministers have admitted defeat in their battle against the grey squirrel and attempts to protect their native red cousins. The Government is scrapping the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order of 1937, under which people can be prosecuted for failing to report a grey squirrel in their garden. As our leader says, "it is up to citizens to do what the state cannot or will not, and resist the invading hordes. The beleaguered red is still worth defending."

Parliamentary authorities, led by John Bercow, have asked the Queen for permission to allow the body of Tony Benn to rest over night in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster on the evening of Wednesday March 26, ahead of his funeral in St Margaret's Church, Westminster on Thursday March 27. The posthumous honour has only been awarded to one other politician: Margaret Thatcher.

The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 

Latest YouGov poll: Con 34%, Lab 38%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 11%
Budget day is indeed a dull affair:
@chhcalling: My mate was in Court for stealing a bag. The whole thing only lasted ten minutes including sentencing. It was a briefcase.BEST COMMENTIn the TelegraphBenedict Brogan - Budget 2014: the five messages George Osborne needs to deliver
Mary Riddell - Osborne must show he is on the side of those who suffer
Dan Hodges - Budget 2014: George Osborne must convince us he doesn’t hate the poor. That means no tax cuts for the rich
Telegraph View - Russia’s crime in Crimea must not go unpunished
Best of the rest
Daniel Finkelstein - The Budget is just a gimmick. So let’s ditch it
Timothy Garton Ash - The focus is on Crimea, but next is the fight for Ukraine
Nigel Farage - Our outrageous tax system isn’t just bad economics. It’s immoral too
Simon Jenkins - George Osborne, it's not your job to look after the very rich
**George Osborne delivers the 2014 Budget.** 

0800 Pre-Budget Cabinet meeting. No 10, Downing Street.

0930 Unemployment figures. Latest unemployment figures published by the Office for National Statistics.

1200 Prime Minister's Questions, House of Commons.

1230 George Osborne delivers Budget.

1830 Norman Tebbit gives Bow Group Annual State of the Conservative Party Address.

1900 The Paddy Power Political Book Awards. BFI IMAX, London.