Safety-first Budget lacks a growth story

George Osborne increasingly looks like a man in search of a clear narrative.

Alec Mattinson: 'The best the Chancellor can hope for is that, unlike last  year, his initiatives hold no nasty surprises.'
Alec Mattinson: 'The best the Chancellor can hope for is that, unlike last year, his initiatives hold no nasty surprises.'

I write as the Chancellor prepares to deliver his fourth Budget, but there is little to suggest the message can be any more positive than during the previous three.

The Government’s initial economic message was clear – the deficit and national debt was the most pressing issue facing the country and tough measures were necessary to tackle this generation-defining crisis.

Three years later and a double-dip recession, near-zero growth and questionable progress on deficit reduction have chipped away at the Government’s core message. The wider economic argument has now been framed as austerity vs growth, rather than austerity being a necessary platform to underpin growth.

The Government seems precariously balanced between two schools of thought and committed to neither – one that demands government stimulus to kick-start growth, the other calling for further cuts to spending, tax and red tape to boost business.

The Government has not always helped itself in the way it has communicated economic strategy.

Firstly, putting the maintenance of the UK’s triple-A rating at the core of its messaging was a risky strategy that could always be derailed by one ratings agency.

Last year’s Budget was also a PR disaster by any measure – from the humbling pasty/caravan/charity tax U-turns to the chaotic way plans were leaked in the run-up to the Budget and subsequently communicated.

It is already clear the Government is committed to running a tighter ship this time around. Although some measures, such as childcare subsidies and backing Michael Heseltine’s ‘No Stone Unturned’ growth plan, have been pre-announced, the media have seemingly been briefed in a more soberly planned and controlled way.

But again, like last year this raises the possibility of pre-announcing all the good stuff, leaving only gloomy data for the media to get their teeth into on and after Budget day itself.

Osborne is overseeing a ‘back-foot Budget’, which is likely to struggle to change the narrative on why the economy is taking longer to recover than Osborne previously pledged.

The best the Chancellor can hope for is that, unlike last year, his initiatives hold no nasty surprises.

A satisfactory Budget result for Osborne and the Government will be a no-score draw – but ‘stay the course’ is unlikely to quell the rumblings of disquiet from those on the back (and front) benches that thirst after bolder and braver narratives.

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