For all the sound and fury, George Osborne's second Budget signified – not quite nothing – but not much more. Indeed, the Chancellor's statement yesterday was more striking for its political drumbeat, for its emotive references to "earning our way in the world" and "supporting working families", than for anything else. Not only was the all-in-it-together rhetoric about raising more tax from "those best able to pay" not entirely convincing. There was little more than warm words when it came to what Britain needs more than anything: economic growth.
Politically, the Chancellor certainly had his work cut out for him. So far, the Coalition has just about retained public support for its cuts programme. Mr Osborne's greatest political challenge is to ensure he keeps it, and to do that he must convince voters that the pain is being spread widely and fairly. Cutting the 50p top tax rate was, therefore, risky. But it was still the right course to take, given the hit to entrepreneurialism and the minimal revenue it was raising. Such a move was, however, only justifiable if accompanied by increases elsewhere. Mr Osborne gave some nods in the right direction yesterday. And he was keen to stress that, taken together, his plans will raise five times as much from the wealthiest as the totemic 50p rate. Perhaps. But his Budget nonetheless left earners of £150,000 a year who pay their taxes through PAYE as the biggest winners. Hardly progressive.
That is not to say there is nothing to applaud. Raising the threshold at which income tax starts to be paid can only be welcomed. The move both lifts a swathe of low earners out of tax altogether and gives a boost – albeit a nominal one – to the pay packets of the majority of working people. Claims that the change will have a tangible effect on consumer spending may be overblown, but it is still a significant step.
Elsewhere, the picture is murkier. The Liberal Democrats may try to claim the eye-catching changes to stamp duty on certain high-end house purchases as a "mansion tax" in all but name. They are not. Only one part of the package comes even close, and that only applies to one specific category. The Chancellor's plans are welcome, insofar as they target flagrant tax avoidance by the richest few. But they are nothing like the annual charge on all multi-million pound houses that was – entirely sensibly – proposed. Mr Osborne should have replaced the 50p rate (which penalises wealth creation) with a property tax (levied on wealth). Instead, he has ducked the issue and protected his own. No amount of bombast at the Dispatch Box will prove otherwise.
Neither is stamp duty the Chancellor's only sleight of hand. Plans to cap the amount of income tax relief that can be claimed by a single taxpayer are long overdue. But the Chancellor stopped far short of a full-blown "tycoon tax", which would set a minimum proportion of income which all must pay regardless of the loopholes available to them. He also left the existing higher-rate pensions relief in place. Both were opportunities missed. And while the plan to taper child benefit cuts for higher taxpayers successfully avoids the unpopular "cliff edge", it leaves the final absolute cut-off at an annual salary of £60,000, which is too high.
Although personal taxation is always the biggest attention-grabber in any Budget, it is economic growth – or lack of it – that will have a far greater impact. Mr Osborne, who hopes the private sector will yet prove the engine of recovery, certainly had plenty of titbits to substantiate his claims to "unashamedly back business". In fairness, he made the right noises. There was something to promote regional development, something for companies wanting to increase their exports, something for digital industries, something for university research. Alongside his restatement of infrastructure-building plans, and the revamp of the planning system, commitments to electrify more railway lines and to wire up major cities with ultra-fast broadband have much to recommend them.
The Chancellor wants Britain to be "open for business", ready to rise with the globalised world economy. He is even taking an extra percentage point off corporation tax. All well and good. But for all the talk of striving and adapting, the reality is that the outlook for the British economy remains bleak and the Chancellor can only tinker around the edges.
According to yesterday's forecasts, growth will crawl in at a measly 0.8 per cent this year. Meanwhile, unemployment is not far off three million and is yet to peak, and thousands of young people in particular cannot find work. There was nothing new in the Budget for those people, and nothing about how to encourage companies to hire them. Nor was there anything about how to persuade business to spend the billions they are currently too wary to invest. For all his soaring claims, the Chancellor left the most important questions unanswered.