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Spring Budget 2024 review

7 March 2024
| by Field Team

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivered the Spring Budget in the House of Commons yesterday. It featured some eye-grabbing tax cuts, but with Labour holding a commanding poll lead, will it move the dial?

Jeremy Hunt gave the game away twenty or so minutes in. “The Shadow Chancellor seems to fancy her thespian skills when it comes to acting like a Tory,” he said. “The trouble is, we all know how her show ends. Higher taxes - like every Labour Government.” In normal circumstances a Chancellor would carefully avoid admitting his opposite number will soon have his job. Today, it barely raised an eyebrow. If today’s Budget had a theme - and given the jumbled soup of measures that made it up, it arguably didn’t - it would be Hunt passing the buck on to Labour. “I commend this statement to the House. Best of luck, Rachel”, he may as well have concluded. 

Hunt made a spirited attempt to defend fifteen years of Conservative economic policy, but given the OBR figures he had to work with - debt as a proportion of GDP falling but only barely, and the economy growing an anaemic 0.8% in an election year - that always felt a tall order. “Stimulating investment is the most effective way to raise productivity and therefore wages and living standards. Since 2010 we have been doing just that”, he claimed. Hunt will know that is bending the truth as well as anyone. The Labour benches didn’t miss the irony. “What are you talking about?” Reeves was seen to mouth. 

Hunt’s headline measure, a 2p cut from National Insurance – repeating the cut from November’s Autumn Statement - is not insignificant, and taken together means the Government can say it has funnelled £900 a year back into the average earners pay packet in the last 6 months. He’s also taken the razor-sharp edges off the Child Benefit taper on higher earners – raising the floor to £60,000, and tapering up to £80,000, with a long term plan to fix the problem properly. He froze alcohol prices, maintained a freeze on fuel duty, and handed out sweeties to constituencies up and down the land. Hunt and the Prime Minister hope it will generate some goodwill. 

But given the gloomy depths of the Tory poll rating, today’s Budget - one of their last chances to move the dial - is unlikely to have done enough. There may be some voters who tuned in with their fingers crossed for a new stage at the National Theatre, or restrictions on furnished holiday lets - but probably not enough. While Budget Day is always full of numbers, this year the most important number was not in the Treasury Red Book: the 25 point poll deficit between the Tories and Labour. 

It was notable how often Hunt spoke directly to the Labour front bench rather than the country, with Starmer and Angela Rayner singled out as well as Reeves. Some traps were very deliberately laid for Labour today: they will have just as little fiscal headroom as Hunt, but will find it politically very difficult to knock National Insurance back up to 10%, or cut real terms public spending down to 0.75% as Hunt could easily have done but chose not to. All briefing to lobby journalists this afternoon suggests Tory MPs wanted more from today, and the Conservative benches were quiet for much of the speech, unable to ignore the key verdict from the OBR - that our overall tax burden is still rising. Yet Hunt may take his solace from the fact that if today was underwhelming, Labour will certainly not have things any easier. 

Keir Starmer had an easier job than usual in responding to today’s Budget, given how much of it was pre-briefed to journalists - something which Chancellors once resigned over if proved to have done. After 14 years of Conservative rule, Starmer asked, “who feels better off?” It is a question which the Government has no answer to at the moment, and which nothing Hunt said today will address. The Chancellor claimed his Budget would “change history”. He might be right, but only in the sense that any chance of this year’s election happening in May surely evaporated the moment a majority of Tory MPs stood up and filed glumly out the Chamber no sooner than his speech had ended.

Today's Budget in brief:

  • 2p cut in National Insurance tax for employees from 10% to 8%, with the self employed rate cut from 8% to 6%, costing £10 billion

  • Reform to the child benefit taper, lifting the start of the charge to earners at £60,000, and extending the taper to £80,000

  • Extending the fuel duty freeze, costing £5bn

  • Scaling back tax breaks for non-doms, raising £2.7bn

  • Increased VAT registration threshold from £85k to £90k

  • Great British ISA introduced to encourage investment in UK assets. This is an additional £5,000 allowance in UK shares, on top of the existing £20,000 ISA allowance.

  • Tax breaks and expanded full expensing for SMEs to boost investment

  • Extending windfall tax on profits of oil and gas companies to 2029, raising £1.5 billion

  • Household Support Fund extended for a further six months

  • Scrapping tax breaks on holiday lets, raising £300m

  • Raising air passenger duty for business travellers

  • A new tax on vapes and increase in tobacco duty, raising £500m

  • Extended freeze on alcohol duty until February 2025

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