George Osborne is gradually cementing a reputation as an effective Chancellor of the Exchequer and skilful politician. He certainly understands coalition politics and how to play for the longer term. Yesterday’s was a very interesting budget.
There a two schools of thought about coalition governments. One may be characterised as “lowest common denominator”: all the bold ideas are knocked out and we are left with a few messy compromises that lack any kind of coherence. The second is the “natural selection of ideas” in which the ideas of the various parties have to compete on their merits and the weak ones don’t survive, the sum being better than any party would produce individually. Britain’s first post-War coalition, formed by politicians unfamiliar with how coalitions work, has seen both types of policy formation at work.
The coalition started well. The initial policy programme was full of bold ideas, while dotty ones (cutting inheritance tax for example) did not make the grade. But things soon degenerated, as activists on both sides sensed betrayal. This was especially evident on the NHS, where we are left with a messy compromise that is almost certainly worse than either party would have produced on its own. But the 2012 budget shows a reversion to the “natural selection” model, for which credit must go to both George Osborne and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
One of the interesting features of the budget has been the disappearance of budget “purdah” – the absolute secrecy surrounding budget proposals. Mr Clegg made the early running in the media game with his bid for an acceleration of increases to personal allowances. But Mr Osborne clearly understood this to be an opportunity rather than a threat – in this case to reverse the top rate of income tax of 50%, which until a month or so ago looked to be entirely off the agenda. A few years ago the Lib Dems had a big conference battle over this top rate (before Labour introduced it, as it happens) and rejected the 50% – so there was evidently some Lib Dem ambiguity over the tax, which Mr Osborne was able to exploit. And indeed world thinking has long since turned against such high marginal rates, even for the very rich.
Meanwhile, weaker Lib Dem ideas about how to tax the rich more efficiently did not make the cut. This applied to the Mansion Tax on high valued property. Such an idea (though based on land rather than total property value) appeals to theoretical economists, but has two major practical problems. First is that property is not the same as cash, and that owners of such valuable properties may struggle to pay, and hence create a fuss. The wider the scope of tax, the more of a problem this is. The second problem is that it has to be based on a theoretical valuation rather than hard and fast fact. This is one of those things that becomes more of a problem the more that you think about it. Property (or anything else) is worth what you persuade somebody else to pay for it, which depends on many factors unique to the individuals taking part in the transaction and the time they make it. A host of practical issues follow. The eventual compromise of an increase in stamp duty for properties over £2 million, combined with a clampdown on stamp duty avoidance, looks like a much better idea to me.
The idea of limiting allowances to higher income people so that effective tax is no less than 25%, the “Tycoon Tax” – attributed to Mr Clegg in the proposal process, though not coming out of any Lib Dem official policy – also looks like a very sensible proposal – and this made the cut.
Mr Osborne was also able to push through further cuts to the main Corporation Tax rate. I have some reservations about this: companies are sitting on too much cash – if they don’t invest it, then the best way of getting this wealth back into the economy is to tax it. But there is logic to it to help retain footloose international capital, something that the country has been quite good at, but needs to stay in the game. And it’s not as generous as it looks, since allowances have been kept in check. In fact the big thing UK companies have been asking for is more generous capital allowances – but the footloose companies aren’t so bothered about this, and the Chancellor did not budge. I’m not sure that capital allowances have been set at the most efficient level – but I do know that business leaders always ask for too much, and the game is often more about tax avoidance than real investment.
One idea was not leaked in advance. This was the phasing out of the age-related personal allowances. This “granny tax” has attracted most of the press attention this morning, with howls of protest that the Labour opposition are seeking to exploit. Yet the reasoning behind this change is solid enough. Pensioners have done pretty well under the reforms already implemented by the government, and this is a nasty, complicated piece of work. Although it is true that many pensioners have been punished by the general reduction in the value of savings since the crisis began, this allowance is a bad way to deal with the problem. What is actually needed is for the economy to return to health, so that we can get back to a real interest rate of about 2% or so from its current negative value. It was brave to take on the pensioner lobbies like this, and Messrs Osborne and Clegg (to say nothing of the PM David Cameron) deserve credit. Critics suggest it may go down as a fiasco like Gordon Brown’s cut of the 10% tax band, or the negligible increase to state pensions the last government implemented when inflation appeared to be very low. Both were politically very damaging, to Mr Brown and to Tony Blair respectively. But this policy does not create cash losers (denying benefits to those who haven’t got them yet – rather than taking them away from those that have). It may even mark a turning point in the battle of the generations, as younger voters start to appreciate just how generous the state is to pensioners, and shift their ire away from the much less costly immigrants and benefit claimants.
The budget does nothing for macro-economists. There is no bold, imperial stimulus to “get the economy moving”. But nobody was expecting that. Overall this budget is a credit to the Coalition government.