There's an old saying in politics that Budgets look different a week after they are delivered than a day after - and I guess Pre-Budgets are no exception. After initially praising the Chancellor's decision to cut VAT on Monday, I've revised my opinion somewhat. Here's today's Journal column.
Thirteen months ago, Chancellor Alistair Darling stood up to deliver his first Pre-Budget report in the House of Commons in what was an atmosphere of political ferment.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown was coming under heavy fire after scrapping plans for an autumn election and the PBR – brought forward by a month from its normal November slot – was being seen as a chance for Labour to regain the political initiative.
In a bid to trump Tory plans to scrap inheritance tax for all estates below £1m, Mr Darling announced an immediate doubling of the threshold for the tax to £600,000.
But the attempted vote-grabbing manoeuvre backfired horribly, making Labour look like a government that had run out of steam and which was now reliant on the opposition for new policy ideas.
A year on, the stakes for Mr Darling were even higher. Against the backdrop of the worst economic downturn in decades, this year’s PBR needed to show that the Chancellor was the man with the plan with tackle the crisis.
Not only that, but Messrs Brown and Darling also needed to demonstrate that their plan was better than anything David Cameron’s Conservatives might come up with.
Well, the backlash against this week’s PBR has been nothing like the widespread public contempt that greeted last year’s, but neither has there been anything resembling a public outburst of enthusiasm for it.
It’s still relatively early days for Mr Darling’s Chancellorship, but if pressed for a judgement I would have to conclude that Pre-Budget Reports are probably not his strong point.
Sure, Monday’s statement had its good points, notably the decision to bring forward £3bn of spending on infrastructure projects and the earlier-than-planned increases in pensions and child benefit.
Welcome, too – at least as far as this columnist is concerned – was the long overdue decision to increase the top rate of tax on the highest earners, though only on those earning what for most of us is the undreamed-of sum of £150,000-a-year.
This has been predictably hailed by some as heralding the death of New Labour, but in truth, the 1997 commitment not to raise the higher rate of tax had become almost as much of an outdated shibboleth as the original Clause IV.
The essence of New Labour did not lie in adherence to any single policy stance, more the idea that different times require different solutions, and in that sense, the 45p tax move is as New Labour as they come.
Neither, in my view, can Messrs Brown and Darling be accused of lacking courage in bringing such a package before the voters.
The Prime Minister has been called many things over the past fifteen months - but the soubriquet which possibly did him the most damage was the one applied to him in the wake of the non-election debacle - 'Bottler Brown.'
Well, he certainly didn’t bottle this one. On the contrary, he has been completely upfront with the public both about the sheer scale of borrowing that is required, and the fact that it will require post-election tax rises to pay for it.
For Labour to try to turn the normal laws of politics on their head by promising both
tax increases and spending cuts if re-elected is a strategy so bold it almost deserves to succeed on that alone.
But for all its boldness, there was a huge unanswered question at the heart of Mr Darling’s plan, namely, whether it will actually work either economically or politically.
The centrepiece of the Monday’s package was not the aforementioned tax increase for the super-rich, but the £12.5bn tax giveaway via the temporary reduction in VAT from 17.5pc to 15pc.
The economic thinking behind this at least is clear. The government hopes it will encourage people to go out and spend, and that the resulting boost to the retail sector will somehow kick-start the rest of the economy.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a price-cut that amounts to a fiver off a £200 telly will have anything like the desired effect in this regard.
But if the economic case for the VAT cut is unproven, the politics of it seem even less clear-cut.
Just ask yourself for a moment, if you were Prime Minister and had £12.5bn with which to try and win the next election, what would be the most vote-winning policy you could come up with?
Well, I don’t think Gordon Brown has asked himself this question anything like as hard as he should have done – because I am quite sure the answer is not a 2.5pc cut in VAT.
A cut in direct taxation, that would have put money directly back in people’s pockets rather than making goods very slightly cheaper in the shops, would have been a far, far better option.
One person who seems to have realised this is North Tyneside MP and former Cabinet minister Stephen Byers, who asked a revealing parliamentary question earlier this year.
Mr Byers wanted to know how much it would cost to lift half a million people, a million and a million half out of income tax altogether.
Intriguingly, the answer he received showed that the cost of lifting a million people out of income tax for one year—by raising the personal allowance by £960—was £11.1bn.
Would that not have been a much better use of the £12.5bn at Mr Darling’s disposal? And would not the Tories have had a much harder time arguing against such a tax cut?
It is for these reasons that I cannot see this Pre-Budget Report as anything more than a missed opportunity for Labour.
Unlike some, I don’t view it as a suicide note to the electorate on a par with the party’s infamous “Shadow Budget” in 1992, but neither do I see it as the springboard for a 2010 election victory.
My hunch is that if the economy recovers, and Labour’s political prospects with it, it will be more in spite of this package than because of it.
Once again, a chance to regain the political initiative has been squandered – along with the taxpayers’ billions.