While undoubtedly a coalition government Budget, this is also a decidedly Conservative Budget. If Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady, then George Osborne is certainly, in the words of his former boss, Michael Howard, a "man of steel". The Chancellor used the battered box first deployed by William Gladstone for the last time before it is retired. Its final outing was a worthy epitaph to the 19th-century chancellor whose first Budget was also laden with measures for austerity.
This will be a Budget that the Tories will universally accept. Not a single Tory will abstain or oppose these measures. There will be relief that capital gains tax has only been increased to 28 per cent and not to the 40 per cent demanded by the Liberal Democrats. John Redwood and David Davis will have difficulty in finding any Tory recruits to their potential rebellion. And the strategy of an 80/20 split between cuts and tax rises will also be well received by Tory backbenchers.
The one-year council-tax freeze is straight out of the Tory manifesto and no Tory MP seriously expected, even without the coalition agreement, the commitment on inheritance tax to be delivered for many years. Indeed, the Labour charge of "Tories hitting the poor" will be rebutted by Liberal Democrats (more on the defensive than Tory MPs) forced into making the Budget argument for "fairness". The greatest test, which Mr Osborne faces from his detractors, is that of "fairness". But the Chancellor is renowned for his skills as a political tactician and he has cornered his Liberal Democrat Cabinet colleagues into defending Tory policies.
We shall never know what Mr Osborne would have done differently had there been a Tory government. Maybe capital gains tax would have remained unchanged but he would certainly have done nothing to redeem his election pledge on inheritance tax. VAT would have still have been raised and the assault on public spending and welfare payments would have been exactly as he outlined.
Harriet Harman howled, predictably, at the VAT increase and the benefit cuts. But Labour will struggle to energise public opinion until the departmental cuts are revealed. The restoration of the earnings link for pensioners was a Tory election promise, and the nod to the Liberal Democrats – the £1,000 downpayment increase in the personal allowance for standard-rate taxpayers – will also be popular with Tory backbenchers, thereby dissipating the outrage from the Chancellor's opponents.
Of far more interest would be to know what Nick Clegg might have said had he been giving the third party leader's speech, from the opposition, following Harriet Harman's response. Many Liberal Democrats will be holding their noses as they troop through the government lobbies. But I'd give anything to see the constituency mail from their activists.
Tory MPs will be holding their breath over whether the economy slips back into recession as a consequence of these measures. But Mr Osborne has temporary cover from the assessments predicting continuing economic growth from the new Office of Budget Responsibility. In the end the test will be whether he meets his claim that unemployment will peak later this year at 2.8 million before falling. Tory nerves will not jangle yet – not until the full extent of the impact of the cuts is known. The Chancellor has taken a gamble, but with a huge prize for the economy and Tory prospects if he succeeds.Reuse content