Andrew Grice: George Osborne punished for not reading the small print

Labour advisers pointed out that the pasty tax was repeatedly rejected by ministers

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In 2009, George Osborne said the Labour Government's U-turns on tax policy "persistently undermined confidence in the certainty of the tax system." He added: "I don't want a Conservative Government to make the same mistakes."

Oh dear. The Chancellor is now gaining a reputation as Mr U-turn after three retreats over what Conservative MPs are calling "the Budget from hell".

It has landed the Government with a reputation for incompetence that will be difficult to shrug off. It also appears to have let Labour back into the crucial economic game. Mr Osborne's personal reputation has suffered too. Until March, he was widely seen as his party's grand master strategist, a political chess player who could see several moves ahead. He was also seen as David Cameron's most likely successor as Tory leader. Now Tory MPs are selling shares in the Chancellor and talking up others including Boris Johnson. "The smart money is going on Boris," one senior Tory said.

What went wrong? It seems Mr Osborne took his eye off the Budget small print because he was focused on the most controversial measure – the cut in the 50p top tax rate on incomes over £150,000 a year. To his embarrassment, Labour advisers have pointed out that the ill-fated "pasty tax" was repeatedly proposed by civil servants, who like to clear up anomalies in the tax system, but rejected by ministers.

Tory MPs raised eyebrows over Mr Osborne's decision to accompany Mr Cameron on a visit to Washington in the week before the Budget. They suspect Gordon Brown would have been burning the midnight oil to smooth out wrinkles in his Budget.

Tory critics claim that Mr Osborne spends too much time in 10 Downing Street as Mr Cameron's top strategist and want him to spend more on his "day job" at the Treasury.

The tennis-loving Mr Cameron will hate the unforced errors in the Budget and the U-turn headlines. He was reluctant to cut the 50p rate. Despite all that, there is little sign he has fallen out with Mr Osborne. They may have copied Labour's U-turns, but they know they cannot afford to copy the battle between Labour's Prime Minister and Chancellor.

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