WITH the clock ticking down to a general election, this was always going to be a Budget that attempted to please as many folk as possible.
The Chancellor had a £6 billion war chest to play with thanks to a tumbling oil price, lower inflation and rejigged growth projections, yet resolutely refused to deviate from his “no giveaways, no gimmicks” line.
Paying down the nation’s debts remains the number one priority, Osborne insisted in a speech that was delivered with more than the odd jibe directed at the Opposition front-bench.
“Britain is walking tall again,” was the repeated opening mantra.
It remains to be seen if that upbeat message will wash with a public that is only now, just maybe, beginning to see the odd glimmer of light at the end of a very long austerity tunnel.
The man with his hands on Britain’s purse strings will be praying that inflation and oil prices keep playing to his favour. The economic data which preceded his sixth Commons’ set piece provided a warning shot, though.
Unemployment may have fallen, with record numbers now in work, but there was a surprise stall in wage growth, suggesting the feel-good factor for many may still be some way off.
As for business? Well, the Institute of Directors summed it up neatly, describing the package of measures as “solid and responsible”.
Bosses will be relieved that corporation tax remains on a downward trend, while those attempting to avoid paying their fair share to HM Revenue & Customs face a wake-up call with the introduction of a tax on “diverted profits”.
There was a resounding cheer and a rather more muted one from Scotland’s two best-known industries. A 2 per cent cut in the excise duty on spirits was hailed as “historic” by whisky leaders, who had argued that the sector was being held back by “onerous” levels of tax. It means that the duty burden on the average bottle of Scotch at £12.90 will be trimmed by 16p from £7.90 to £7.74. Hardly a cut of seismic proportions, but the sentiment was right from a Chancellor who also lobbed a further penny off a pint.
A “lifeline” £1.3bn package of support for the struggling oil and gas industry was broadly welcomed. The government is to cut the supplementary charge on profits from 30 per cent to 20 per cent and reduce petroleum revenue tax from 50 per cent to 35 per cent next year. A tax allowance will be introduced to stimulate investment in the North Sea, and offshore exploration will be boosted by a £20 million fund for new survey work. However, job losses are still likely to run into the thousands as operators battle with an oil price that has halved since the summer.
In summary, this was about as balanced as a Budget could be, albeit one that was predicated on the promise of much jam tomorrow.
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