Tommy Sheppard: IDS is gone, but ethos behind Budget remains

George Osborne's policy is all about a long-term political plan for himself, not the country, says Tommy Sheppard

Thursday, 24th March 2016, 10:28 am
Updated Thursday, 24th March 2016, 10:37 am
Chancellor George Osborne speaks in the House of Commons, London, on the final day of debate on the Budget. Picture: PA Wire

SO farewell then IDS. The former welfare secretary has resigned accusing his government of unfairness and leaving its Budget plans in disarray. He’s right, although you wonder why he chose this moment to go having presided over so many cuts in the past. Is it perhaps more to do with mortally wounding Osborne’s ambitions to lead the Tory party than a sudden sense of compassion?

And while he has gone, the ethos behind last week’s Budget hasn’t changed. Osborne is a chancellor who has made a bad habit out of setting ridiculous targets – and then breaking them. So much so, that pretty much everyone is taking his predictions with a big dose of salt. He was on course to fail on another target, that of achieving a £10 billion surplus by 2019/20.

You might wonder why he is so keen on this. Governments do make surpluses from time to time if things go well, but actually planning to have one is quite unusual. It’s quite an odd thing to do when you think about it. It means the government will be charging people more in tax than they intend to spend, more than they need to run things.

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Many of us are suspicious that the reason the Tories are so desperate to create a surplus by 2019 is to fund a pre-election giveaway in 2020. And who hopes to be in charge of the Tory party by then? You’ve guessed it, George Osborne. The Chancellor is less worried about a long-term economic plan for the country and more about a long-term political plan for himself.

And that’s why he’s demanding a new round of cuts to the tune of 
£3.5 billion. These cuts will fall in the so-called unprotected areas like transport, local government and environment. Coming on top of last summer’s savage reductions in spending the effect will be devastating in these areas.

Osborne has been forced to backtrack on the most hurtful, and immoral, plan he announced last week: cuts in the area of support for people with disabilities. They had planned to cut Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for 640,000 people: cutting life support to the most vulnerable to throw a lifeline to the Chancellor.

This has quickly come undone as some Tories found their conscience. But the Chancellor’s refusal to say how this U-turn will be funded – whether by increased taxes or cuts elsewhere – has left many of us fearing he’ll be bringing it back later.

The Budget will cut the amount of income tax most workers pay by increasing tax thresholds. But the proposals mean that the highest paid gain the most and those on the lowest wages don’t get a penny. This increases inequality and relative poverty. From next year, thankfully, we will have the power to change this in Scotland and stop the tax system becoming even more unfair.

The most ridiculous aspect was the Chancellor repeatedly stating that this was a Budget for the next generation. Fat chance. This too-smart tagline dreamt up by one of his many PR advisors quickly evaporated.

Down south the outlook is dire for young people. The last remaining student grants have disappeared driving up the cost of further and higher education. The next generation is living with mum and dad and likely to stay there until middle age since social housing has been abolished and only the richest can afford to buy. And those starting work now can expect to work into their late seventies.

A tax bung from the government for those few under-40s who have a spare four grand in the bank isn’t much against this miserable prospectus. Somehow, I doubt the next generation, or this one, will find much to cheer in this Budget.

• Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East