'Steady-As-She-Goes Coronavirus Budget': What Tory MPs Expect From The Chancellor

HuffPost UK hears concerns that Rishi Sunak could risk the Tory reputation for prudence and questions on whether the virus could cover for Boris Johnson's lack of a plan.

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It will be a big moment regardless of what’s in it - the first Tory Budget since Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority and a first outing for Rishi Sunak since his meteoric, if controversial, rise to the post of chancellor.

But it is hard to escape the sense that, like every budget since Brexit chaos gripped the nation, it could be another signpost on the road rather than a significant stake in the ground.

With coronavirus slowly extending its impact across society and financial markets plunging with the end uncertain, many MPs are now waiting for the spending review and a second budget in autumn before assessing just how radical Johnson and top aide Dominic Cummings plan to get.

But as one ex-minister tells HuffPost UK that could prove convenient for a government that still has not quite worked out what to do.

They predict a “steady-as-she-goes” and “statesmanlike” budget focused on dealing with the virus, helping the high street and keeping the economy going in uncertain times and establishing Sunak as a competent Tory chancellor.

But they insist “that is the symptom of some quite big unfinished business” at the top of the government.

“I think Rishi is going to use coronavirus as a convenient rationale for not giving the budget Dom Cummings had planned,” they say.

“But there are some quite big policy arguments going on about devolution, net zero, infrastructure bonds, tax cuts or tax rises - the compass is spinning on what exactly the government’s fiscal and economic policy is.

“Dom has a revolutionary blueprint but that has not been agreed and the cabinet hasn’t taken hold of it yet.

“Dom is keen to announce everything and get it out the Dom way but I think the Treasury will just flex a bit of muscle and say hang on, until some quite important policy discussions are settled let’s make this a steady-as-she-goes coronavirus Budget.

“That’s all good but I’m concerned because it suggests Dom hasn’t thought all this through, or he has and Rishi doesn’t like the look of it - but I’m pretty sure it’s not the latter.”

Boris Johnson's top adviser Dominic Cummings
Boris Johnson's top adviser Dominic Cummings

Despite potentially deferring big tax and spend decisions, Sunak will have to set a framework which could guide the government over the next four years.

One veteran Tory feels Sunak is facing “a very tricky budget indeed” as he works out how to pay for Johnson’s long list of spending pledges.

And it is this question which is vexing many Tory MPs, who are worried the new chancellor is set to rip up the government’s commitment to balance the nation’s books.

Sunak’s predecessor, Sajid Javid, has already launched a full-throated defence of fiscal prudence.

And it is difficult to find Tory MPs in favour of ripping up the so-called ‘fiscal rules’ which commit the government to balancing day-to-day spending and revenue, while allowing it to borrow for long-term capital investment.

Even several of the 2019 intake from ex-Labour ‘red wall’ seats in the north and Midlands that are lined up to benefit from a Blair-Brown-style spending splurge are wary about throwing off the shackles.

Rising star Jonathan Gullis, the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, has already cautioned against a “Labour-lite” Budget, calling instead for “conservatism and free market values”.

“I think we’ve been pulled further to the left than we perhaps would have been by Corbyn”

Richard Holden, the new MP for North West Durham, sums up the dilemma facing the Treasury.

He tells HuffPost UK: “The only way you are going to have sustainable spending in the long term is if you have got a budget that can hold together, we have got to be careful about that.

“But the levelling up agenda is what’s most important to us and all areas of the country get their needs reflected in spending.”

Another 2019 “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” MP from the south-east meanwhile warns that breaking up the fiscal rules would risk the party’s hard-won reputation for financial competence, insisting it is “the one thing that differentiates the Tories” when both parties are committed to splashing cash.

Those concerns are shared across the party, as Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown says: “We spent a lot of blood sweat and tears with austerity getting the deficit down and I wouldn’t want to see it rapidly increase again so I would be quite wary about (scrapping the fiscal rules).

“We’ve always had a reputation for financial prudence and if that means we have to withstand a few brickbats by not doing everything we would like immediately on public services that’s what we’ve got to do.

“I think we’ve been pulled further to the left than we perhaps would have been by Corbyn and I think we are, to a degree, pandering to that rather than doing what is the right thing.”

Coronavirus only makes the fiscal rules more crucial, according to former minister Robert Goodwill.

“Also at the moment the economy is running really well and the whole point of the economic cycle is when the economy is doing well you should be paying off some debt and when the economy is doing badly in a recession, that’s when you borrow,” the Scarborough and Whitby MP says.

“One of the problems during the Blair boom years is they were still borrowing money.

“Rishi needs to not take his eye off the ball in balancing the books because it’s a sensible thing to do in terms of prudence and also because who knows how deep into his pocket he might have to dig to reimburse companies in trouble over coronavirus, health costs, doctors’ overtime?”

Sunak, the Treasury and No.10 will be more than aware of their own MPs’ concerns about the fiscal rules.

And the steady drip of stories about potential tax rises - from a mansion tax to scrapping entrepreneurs’ relief - suggests that Sunak will stick to the rules but look to raise money to pay for spending.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is tipped to announce some tax rises
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is tipped to announce some tax rises

The Tories have committed not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT and so any tax hikes are likely to create winners and losers.

With a parliamentary party now incredibly diverse - from the south-east commuter belt to rural areas and post-industrial northern heartlands - there is a risk of splitting the party and its voters.

“I think this is going to be a very tricky budget indeed not to hit too many of our constituents,” Clifton-Brown says.

He is among several rural MPs concerned about the impact of mooted tax hikes on so-called ‘red diesel’ used by farmers, while there are concerns around green measures hitting areas lacking public transport.

One ex-minister highlights the problem: “Farmers are pretty much brassic in terms of cash and I’m not sure why you’d want to tax people who don’t have much money to pay.

“It’s similar with inshore fishermen, they are not making a lot of money.”

There is a feeling among many MPs that they have waited so long for a strong majority they now want to see the government carrying out some “good old fashioned Tory tax cuts”, in the words of one senior figure.

They will welcome expected moves to raise the threshold at which people pay national insurance but some want to see Johnson return to his plans to take more people out of the higher rate of tax, the MP said.

One thing MPs will get is £100bn pouring into infrastructure projects around the country.

And it is important to do this now to allow 2024 election candidates to stand proudly in front of shiny new roads, bridges, or rail links - or at the very least spades in the ground.

“Seeing is believing and voters will want to see those projects being delivered on the ground, not just more promises which could always be reneged upon,” says Goodwill.

Alongside those big infrastructure projects, Holden and others in the northern red wall are calling for small targeted help that could make a significant difference to their local economies.

The MP is leading a small group in the north-east calling for a reversal of EU-mandated tax green tax hikes on motorhomes, which have dramatically increased costs and forced a 15-20% drop-off in sales.

And the pressure may be off Sunak, with red wall MPs now expecting more significant action at the summer spending review and potential autumn budget.

By the end of Wednesday’s budget “we may not have seen a radical plan for the renewal of Britain but we may have seen a chancellor we have confidence in,” as one ex-minister notes.


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