Before the budget, the TV pundits like to tell us about divisions between the PM and his next-door neighbour. The story is that boom-and-bust Boris can’t wait to splurge cash on a set of mega-projects that would put a Persian emperor to shame. Build a bridge. Burrow a tunnel. Concrete over an estuary and plonk an airport on top. He wants to tarmac his way out of trouble. But the smooth and neatly combed Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, plans to create fiscal stability and to take things from there. He looked every inch the central banker as he delivered his budget today with his gleaming hair and immaculate blue suit. Next to him, Mark Carney would have looked like a tramp. Sunak offered a welcome glimpse of sunshine.
Back in November, before the mass-jabbings began, the OBR predicted that unemployment would hit 11 per cent. But vax-mania has convinced the number-crunchers to cheer up a bit and to issue a revised figure of about 6 per cent. This means that 1.8m threatened jobs will have been saved. And saved by Sunak. In person. He failed to make any link between the vaccine and the lower unemployment forecasts. ‘Our intervention to support jobs has worked,’ he beamed. Not even a hat-tip to health secretary, Matt Hancock. Sunak has a calculating streak. That won’t have gone unnoticed.
He can be imaginative too. His plan to hike corporation tax to 25 per cent sounds pretty brutal but he’s automatically excluded 90 per cent of businesses. The new rate will apply only to firms with profits over £250,000. This spells a bonanza for accountants and lawyers as medium-sized firms split their business in half to dodge the new money-grab.
He hasn’t fully unglued himself from the Treasury’s clotted thinking. He announced £100m for ‘a new HMRC task force of 1,000 investigators to clamp down on evasion.’ Not just a waste of cash but a charter for inefficiency. If these 1,000 bounty-hunters took 5 per cent from every scam they uncovered they’d deliver a far better service at zero cost to the tax-payer.
His big idea was freeports. Eight of these gleaming temples of prosperity are to be sprinkled around the country. But what are they? He was vague. ‘Zones with different rules that make it cheaper to do business.’ He spoke of simpler planning systems and more favourable customs regimes. Mmm. Not a lot more clarity there. They sound like on-shore tax havens or a mini-Monacos where fraudsters and criminals can swan around grabbing luxury clobber at knock-down prices. And if they create so much wealth why not apply the lighter regulations to the whole country?
Sunak’s worst ideas might have come from the Labour manifesto. At least one of them had. Jeremy Corbyn once promised to install a ‘business expert’ in every Post Office to advise local entrepreneurs on how to make billions from their start-ups. Clearly an idiotic scheme. A good businessman doesn’t teach business. He does business. He wins business.
Sunak’s version promises ‘executive development programmes with mentoring and peer-learning… to help hundreds of thousands of SMEs get world-class management training.’ It sounds like a chain of drop-in centres for failed dreamers who claim to be experts in the field where they bombed. The programme’s name is ‘Help to Grow.’ That’s what you call a yoga class.
And Sunak is about to curse the nation with ‘a UK infrastructure bank in Leeds’ which will ‘invest in public and private projects to finance the green industrial revolution.’
A nationalised bank? ‘We welcome it’ said Sir Keir Starmer. ‘We’ve talked about it for years.’
A sensible Chancellor would take note and scrap it immediately.