George Osborne is preparing to give his sixth Budget today, capping off five years as Chancellor. Depending on the election result, it could be his last. And so, Osborne is making sure to come to the Commons with lots of goodies to make MPs, and hopefully voters, cheer, like "the death of the annual tax return", which we have splashed on today. Saving millions of people from "the tax return panic" (as the Mail calls it) with new digital tax accounts is already proving popular.
After five years of stern talk about dealing with "Labour's mess", Osborne is trying to put a positive case for why he should be able to finish his "long term economic plan", helped by the economy bouncing back and the fact that he has money to play with by easing up on spending cuts. "Good times to roll with £10bn extra for budget", the Times leads on, while the Independent reports that Osborne will scrap the tax on savings income in a "budget for votes".
How much could Osborne actually do just two months before the general election? If you want a sense of what to expect, we have rounded up all the best Budget leaks and predictions here. His Conservative predecessor, Nigel Lawson, has some ideas for him in today's Telegraph. The former Chancellor wants Osborne to cut 1p off the basic rate of income tax, paying for it by raising petrol tax by 5p a litre, and replace the winter fuel allowance with an increase in the state pension. The Lib Dems have already kicked up a fuss about proposals to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, leaking it to the Guardian in order to show how the Tories are "on the side of the rich". With the plans going nowhere in coalition, it looks like the Conservatives will save them for their manifesto.
But, as my colleague Allister Heath says, Osborne will still need a rabbit or two to pull out from under his hat to excite voters. He is expected to raise the level at which people start paying income tax to £11,000, equating to a £200 tax cut for workers. He may also allow pensioners to sell their annuities for cash after being urged by ministers to avert an "unfair" generational divide. But will that be enough? Restrained by coalition, the Chancellor will have to keep his boldest proposals, like a tougher benefit cap, on the shelf. "This low tax, small state Tory message has been blunted by five years of partnership with the Lib Dems," our view is. "It needs to be reaffirmed in the coming election campaign, starting today."
Even if Osborne delivers a bland Budget today, Tory MPs will be relieved that he avoided a reprise of the 2012 "omnishambles" statement, which was shredded for cutting the top rate of income tax to 45 per cent while increasing tax on pasties and caravans, generating weeks of bad headlines and blowing a hole in the party's "all in it together" message on austerity. "That Budget sank the Tories in the polls and gave Labour a lead it would take the best part of three years to erode," Ben Riley-Smith notes in his profile of the Chancellor.
Osborne's aim today is clear: to drum home that the economic recovery, as delayed as it may have been, is finally coming through under his watch. But he will inevitably couch that message with ominous warnings about how dangerous the world is out there and that the "job is not done", as he will know the risk of voters feeling too positive is that they may not worry about backing someone else, like Labour or UKIP.
When Osborne steps up to the despatch box this afternoon, he holds the Tories' election hopes in his hands. We have just a few hours to find out if his sixth Budget will make or break his party's campaign.
THE TRUTH ISN'T OUT THERE...
Labour's election chief has suggested that Facebook is partly responsible for the party's "bad" position in Scotland as such sites have become an "echo chamber" for conspiracy theories. Douglas Alexander, Labour's election campaign manager, admitted that his party has a "fight on its hands" in Scotland because of the "grief and anger" of nationalists. Here are more details.
DON'T CALL IT A MASS DEBATE
David Cameron has reached an agreement with broadcasters to take part in a single seven-way TV debate on 2 April with all party leaders to be broadcast by ITV in the run up to the General Election, instead of a head to head with Ed Miliband. He previously demanded it should be held a week earlier in his "final offer" to broadcasters. Here are more details.
ED'S MYSTERY MONEY MAN
Who is Martin Taylor? He has given Labour £591,800, making him the party's third largest backer outside the trade unions this parliament, and seems to have met Ed Miliband at least once. However, Labour aren't keen, or able, to say who he is. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been looking into it.
OUT OF A PICKLE
One of the Conservatives' most senior politicians has revealed how he reprimanded himself for being "narrow-minded" and "prejudiced" for opposing gay marriage. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has described on live radio how he made a "180-degree" turn on the topic after realising his previous criticism of the change was "mean", Ben Riley-Smith reports.
LABOUR: KEEP CLARKS-OFF TV
Jeremy Clarkson should not be allowed to return to the BBC because of his "pattern of obnoxious, racist behaviour", the shadow transport secretary has said. Michael Dugher said that the idea of Clarkson working for a public service broadcaster is "for the Stone Age", adding that describing him as an "idiot" is a "compliment". Steven Swinford has more.
EVERYONE'S A LITTLE BIT RACIST
UKIP MEP David Coburn was branded a "racist clown" by the Scottish Nationalists' Pete Wishart in a fiery debate after he compared a Muslim SNP minister to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza. Coburn insisted he would not take the criticism from a party that was "xenophobic against the English". HuffPostUK's Ned Simons was in the audience.
DAVE WON'T BE A KNOCK-OFF NIGEL
David Cameron has said the prospect of holding a referendum on British membership of the European Union this year in order to secure the support of the UK Independence Party is "pretty slim", Rosa Prince reports. But the Prime Minister did not rule out altogether the possibility of a poll in 2015, after Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, said one would be the price of his party propping up the Tories in a coalition government after the general election in May.
The Conservatives are to unveil tough measures to deal with illegal gypsy encampments, including setting up special magistrates courts that can order evictions on weekends and during the night, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has indicated. Grayling told MPs that the issue of travellers occupying land "requires attention as soon as we get a Conservative government re-elected". Peter Dominiczak has more.
GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE
Jack Monroe, an anti-poverty campaigner who appeared in an official Labour Party broadcast, has defected to the Green Party in protest at Labour's stance on immigration and welfare, Emily Gosden reports. Monroe, who writes the food blog 'A Girl Called Jack', posted an image of her Green Party welcome letter online on Tuesday.
Average of polls as of Monday, March 16: Lab: 34.36%, Conservative: 32.98%, UKIP 14.6%, Lib Dem 7.6%, Green 5.26%. The data is from: YouGov, Populus, Opinium, ComRes, Survation, Ipsos MORI, ICM, TNS-BMRB.
TOO MANY TWEETS…
@EdConwaySky: G Osborne's Budgets have less substance than any other recent Chancellor. Statistical proof https://medium.com/sky-news/substance-vs-spin-how-the-chancellors-compare-b900c1d19158
From The Telegraph
Nigel Lawson - When George Osborne stands up to deliver his Budget, this is what he should say
Dan Hodges - George Osborne's Back to the Future Budget
Michael Barber - UK government needs clear goals and a tight grip on spending
Rafael Behr - If businesses trashed each other the way politicians do, they'd have no customers left
0930 UK monthly unemployment figures from ONS
1230: The Budget
The OBR's latest Economic and Fiscal Outlook report to be released
US interest rate decision
Bank of England MPC meeting minutes to be published
'Game of Thrones' series 5 world premier at the Tower of London
TODAY IN PARLIAMENT
HOUSE OF COMMONS
11:30 Oral questions - International Development, including Topical Questions
12:00 Prime Minister's Question Time
Budget Statement - George Osborne
Adjournment debate led by Damian Collins on Fishing discards and quotas
9:30 - 11:00: Debate on support for women entrepreneurs led by Seema Malhotra
11:00- 11:30 Debate on the AEA Technology pension scheme led by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
1430 - 1600 Debate on proposals for a new equal pay act led by Emily Thornberry
1600 - 1630 Debate on government response to collapse of MG Rover, led by Richard Burden
1630 - 1700 Debate on government support for economy of Torbay led by Adrian Sanders
HOUSE OF LORDS
1500 Oral questions
Control of Horses Bill - 3rd reading
Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill - 3rd reading
Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill [HL] - 3rd reading
Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill - Report stage
Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Bill - Report stage
House of Commons Commission Bill - Committee stage - Committee of the Whole House
Orders and regulations - Legal Services Act 2007 (Warrant) (Approved Regulator) Regulations 2015; Legal Services Act 2007 (Warrant) (Licensing Authority) Regulations 2015; Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Procedure) (Amendment) Rules 2015; Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (Code of Practice) Order 2015
Debate on the Report of the Select Committee on Affordable childcare
Debate on the Protection of interpreters and translators working in conflict zones around the world
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill - all stages.