“My main aim this year is to avoid fucking up the Budget,” George Osborne is reported to have recently told colleagues. And the chancellor is certainly not lacking advice on how to avoid doing just that – much of it from his own backbenches.
On Wednesday, in the Commons chamber, the focus will be on the theater of Osborne’s joust with Labour leader Ed Miliband. Opposition from Her Majesty's Opposition is, of course, to be expected - as is a degree of sniping from Lib Dem MPs. But as the chancellor's fourth Budget is dissected in the following hours and days, the people that Osborne will be most keen to appease are the men and women sat behind him, not those in front or to the side.
Last year’s ‘omnishambles’ Budget was hugely damaging for the chancellor; a personal disaster. A series of comical and humiliating U-turns - on pasty, caravan and charity taxes - all but destroyed Osborne's reputation as a master political tactician and likely put and end to any hopes he held of one day succeeding David Cameron as Tory leader.
The prime minister has insisted that this year’s Budget will be focused on 'staying the course'. No extra borrowing to invest in capital projects to stimulate growth as advocated by Labour and the Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable. And no huge tax cuts designed to do the same thing as advocated by many Tory MPs on the right of the party. Despite Cameron and Osborne’s devotion to Plan A, there is no shortage of people keen to push their own Plan B (or 'Plan A+', as Cable insists on calling his).
The Free Enterprise Group, the collection of vocal Tories largely made up of ambitious MPs from the 2010 intake, want to see “massive spending reductions” to compensate for the fact that despite Osborne's austerity, borrowing is rising as is the national debt.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the MP for Spelthorne, recently told the chancellor to “man up” and admit he was not cutting enough.
“We are not in a fit state to be spending money in this way,” he said. “We have got to address this and if we don’t what will happen is that we will have another government which will probably not address it and we will end up being a basket case.”
As well as making deeper cuts to public spending, these MPs want tax cuts to stimulate the economy. Witham MP Priti Patel has argued that “punishing” tax rates are ruining the incentive to work, save and invest in the United Kingdom. “Politicians must wake up to harm high taxes are causing. We need drastic action if we are to revive our stagnant economy. If the Chancellor wants a big idea for the Budget, it’s actually a simple one. Two words: cut taxes,” she wrote earlier this month.
The call for deeper spending cuts and lower taxes does not come just from the new intake. Their platform was given a boost last week when senior Tory Liam Fox urged Osborne to consider freezing public spending for five years and use the savings to cut taxes at the same time as reducing the deficit.
The former defence secretary, who is said to have one eye on a cabinet return, said the principle of universal benefits should be ended and attacked the "drug of welfare addiction" that he said had ensnared even the "affluent middle classes".
"How did we ever get to a situation where those earning £60,000 were receiving state benefits, where your household income could be bigger on welfare than the working family next door or where those on low pay subsidised cold weather payments for pensioners living on the Costa del Sol."
Some want Osborne to go even further, ripping up the structure of how Budgets are made as well as his current spending plans. Clacton MP Douglas Carswell, the independently minded backbencher argues the only way Osborne will achieve his goal of eliminating the structural deficit is to give parliament direct control of the purse strings.
“Margaret Thatcher discovered it was incredibly difficult to reign in public spending,” he says. “George Osborne is discovering it is difficult to reign in public spending.”
“Could it be that counting on government to reign in government is always going to be difficult?”
In the run-up to the Budget a new, very Westminster village, term has gained traction, that of the National Union of Ministers (NUM). This is the name given to secretaries of state whom while signed up to the broad idea of austerity, would rather it did not affect their own particular departments, thank you very much.
The defence secretary Philip Hammond, who expected to be given the job of wielding the axe in the majority Tory government, has argued for deeper welfare cuts to save the military. Home secretary Theresa May and communities secretary Eric Pickles are also said to have lobbied hard for their departments to be spared, as has Cable.
Carswell says ministers have become hostages to their departments. He tells HuffPost UK: “The fundamental problem is the NUM is basically a lobby group for the lobby group of mandarins. The mandarins always want more resources for mandarins.”
“As Conservatives, we all understood in order to get the education system we wanted we needed to make structural changes, in order to get the Budgets we want we need to get structural changes too.”
“Until these changes happen we are going to be perennially disappointed by tax and spending chancellors.”
Carswell argues that, U-turns aside, Budgets need to be amendable after they are presented to parliament. “People lobby beforehand, but once it’s put forward it’s either ‘yes, thumbs up’, or ‘no’. The legislature doesn’t really control the Budget. Who wants to vote against it and trigger a General Election? It’s become a rubber stamp.”
“If you gave that role to each select committee it might give them something useful to do,” he observes.
But Osborne will not be announcing deeper spending cuts or massive tax breaks. And despite his past interest in Carswell’s structural reforms, telling Commons he was “quite attracted” to them, the chancellor will not be ceding control over spending and taxation to MPs.
The Tory backbenches may not get the deep cuts in spending and tax they desire. But Osborne will no doubt try and placate them with some crumbs of comfort.
One of the biggest victors of last year’s Budget was campaigning MP Robert Halfon. Having doggedly pursued the case for the planned 3p rise in fuel duty to be axed, he was rewarded with a u-turn that gave him just that.
Halfon may see his victory extended this Budget day. According to recent reports, it appears the 3p rise penciled in for the autumn may also be dropped by Osborne on Wednesday.
Halfon's grin will spread wider if he secures victory in his latest campaign, the re-introduction of the 10p tax rate. The Harlow MP told HuffPost UK it would be a popular move. "It would be symbolic of this government's mission to repair our economy, and to help workers on the lowest incomes," he said. "And it would help to tackle the desperate stagnation in family incomes, which we have suffered from in the last 10 years."
Another specific measure Osborne has hinted at is that he may scrap the annual rise in beer duty - a pet project of Burton MP Andrew Griffiths. "The hated beer tax escalator is killing brewers and closing down pubs," he has said. "Unless future increases are scrapped now we could see the terminal decline of the great British pint."
However, many more MPs will be disappointed. Chief among them is likely to be those urging a tax break for married couples, a key Conservative issue. Tim Loughton, the former education minister, has repeatedly urged Osborne to introduce a the tax break for married couples worth £150 a year.
Ahead of the Autumn Statement, Loughton told HuffPost UK it was time for Osborne to “step up and produce the goods”. He was disappointed however. And he looks set to be on Wednesday once again.
And deregulators like Dominic Raab, the high-profile MP for Esher and Walton, are unlikely to see their wish of some employment rights being scrapped or the suspension of the minimum wage for 16 to 21 year olds.
The unheeded economic advice from the disgruntled Tory right provides great ammunition for Ed Balls, who took great joy in ribbing the chancellor last week. "Government members may cheer behind the chancellor in public, but they are not cheering in private," said the shadow chancellor.
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