George Osborne went on a fiscal fox hunt yesterday, tally ho! In his sights were three Labour's arguments: the Chancellor is cutting spending back to 1930s levels, failing to deal with Britain's debt, and has overseen a plunge in Britons' living standards. "By the time he sat down, the Westminster hunting ground was littered with the corpses of shot Labour foxes", our view is.
This all required financial jiggery-pokery, so Osborne eased up on his planned cuts to put an end to the "worst cuts in 80 years" style headlines that the Office for Budget Responsibility provoked in its assessment last December of his plans. To achieve this, Osborne cut back on how much of a budget surplus he wanted to leave Britain, with his target falling from £23 billion to £5 billion. He also decided to end his austerity programme a year earlier than planned, with it now set to last until 2019/2020. The OBR still foresees a "rollercoaster" programme after May, with cuts four times as big pencilled in for two years and then a big spending splurge, which would leave spending at its lowest level since 1964. Around 800,000 more public sector workers are estimated to lose their jobs, so it won't be a fun ride for some. Basically, it's a return to the "swingeing sixties".
Helped by £20bn of asset sales, Osborne was able to tell MPs that he would now meet his original target to have debt falling as a percentage of GDP this year. He gave a forensic argument for why living standards have improved in the last five years, but other figures suggest that household income has some way to go before it returns to pre-crisis levels. If they aren't sure they feel better off, Osborne made sure to announce policies that would leave them trousering more cash, like a £200 increase in their tax-free personal allowance.
Osborne didn't have a big announcement, as the Times' Tim Montgomerie noted in tearing into the "dull, simplistic" Budget. Rather than eliminating the deficit in five years as originally planned, Osborne has managed to halve it. Despite mocking his predecessor Alistair Darling's plan to do just that as "not credible", Osborne has sold his record as an unalloyed triumph. "It was brilliant stuff," writes my colleague Allister Heath, "a case study in triangulation and putting electioneering ahead of any other consideration." We have rounded up the key announcements here.
There's now cause for dismay in Labour's ranks. Miliband gave a decent response in the Commons yesterday, warning of "colossal", "massive" and "extreme" cuts, but Ed Balls has been struggling to articulate in broadcast interviews this morning what the party would do differently. Just what is Labour's message now? The Lib Dems will get their chance to shine today, as Osborne's Treasury deputy Danny Alexander prepares to present an unpredecented second Budget, setting out what his party would do differently after the election, bringing his yellow "budget box" into the Commons.
The coalition may still be alive, but both sides has already broken up. The campaign is truly in full swing.
REMEMBER THE BIG SOCIETY
Iain Duncan Smith has written for the Telegraph about the government's "social impact bonds", through which investors can put up cash to fund schemes like cutting homelessness or reoffending, and then get a dividend from the state if it works. "The potential for this nascent market is huge, he writes. "Just think what that money could mean on the ground: how many lives it could transform."
NOT SO SLICK
The extraordinary extent to which the SNP inflated North Sea oil revenues during the independence referendum has been disclosed by official figures predicting they will be more than 90 per cent lower than the Nationalists claimed, Simon Johnson reports. The impartial Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) dramatically revised down its predictions for how much oil and gas will generate for the rest of the decade, projecting the sector will only generate £600 million in 2016/17.
Osborne has snuck out in his Budget the news, noticed by the Times' Laura Pitel, that £250,000 will be spent on research to help tackle the problems "very aggressive gulls" are causing throughout the UK, terrorising people, causing mess, noise and damage to property.
Boris Johnson's father has bet £20 on his son becoming the next prime minister. Stanley Johnson, 74, said his son is the "best man for the job" and predicted he would beat other rivals to become the next Tory leader. "Next Prime Minster After Cameron. Boris Johnson. 5/1," read the betting slip seen by The Sun.
VATS NOT OKAY
David Cameron is to take up the cause of hundreds of online "micro-businesses" threatened by changes in EU tax rules, Matthew Holehouse reports. The Prime Minister is planning to raise new VAT regulations for automated digital services at the EU summit beginning today in Brussels amid fears some small traders could be forced out of business altogether.
BEHIND THE MASK
As the General Election looms, Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman has opened up about the party, women's rights and her guilty pleasure, sitting on her sofa with her kittens on her lap. How intelligent does she think she is? She reveals all to Matthew Stadlen.
MALE PALE... AND STALE?
The Liberal Democrats are too "male and pale", the party's leader, Nick Clegg, has admitted, adding that larger parties could put female candidates in seats as "consolation prizes", the Guardian reports. "If we want to represent modern Britain, we have to have modern Britain represented in us, he told BBC Radio Four's Woman's Hour.
Average of polls as of Tuesday, March 17: Lab: 34.52%, Conservative: 33.14%, UKIP 14.43%, Lib Dem 7.6%, Green 4.82%. The data is from: YouGov, Populus, Opinium, ComRes, Survation, Ipsos MORI, ICM, TNS-BMRB.
TOO MANY TWEETS…
@HelenLewis: Osborne methodically shooting Labour's foxes: living standards, debt targets, 1930s spending. Doubt Ed M has a fox defibrillator to hand.
From The TelegraphJeremy Warner - Will the US spoil George Osborne's Budget party?
Dan Hodges - George Osborne got the economics right. That's what has killed Labour
Simon Jenkins - Cameron may be PM – but it's Osborne who really runs this government
Tim Montgomerie - We need more than this dull, simplistic budget
Ed Balls to respond to yesterday's Budget statement in the House of Commons
Lib Dems to announce alternative fiscal plans – their 'ambition for the future'
EU Council heads of state summit meeting. Leaders are expected to discuss building an energy union and relations with Russia
2100: Nigel Farage and Tony Blair are interviewed in Trevor Phillips' documentary 'Things We Won't Say About Race That Are True' on Channel 4
TODAY IN PARLIAMENT
HOUSE OF COMMONS
9.30 Oral questions: Energy and Climate Change, including Topical Questions
Business Statement from Leader of the House
Continuation of the Budget debate
Adjournment Debate on Shooter's Hill mobile phone mast at Stoke-on-Trent - Robert Flello
13.30 - 16.30 Future of local newspapers debate
HOUSE OF LORDS
A debate on the select Committee report on the Inquiries Act 2005.
A debate on the EU Committee Report on the impact of the European Public Prosecutor's Office.
A debate on the report of the Science and Technology Committee on International Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics students.
Legislation: Health Service Commissioner for England (Complaint Handling) Bill - Committee stage - Committee of the Whole House