As we begin to digest the technical details, what is the overall impression of Mr Osborne's eighth budget? If the Autumn Statement was triumphal, this was more downbeat – combative, definitely – but there was something more workmanlike about this budget.
The slightly downbeat tone he struck was not without good reason. The outlook for the world economy is not as strong as previously thought, with the inevitable knock on effect for the Office of Budget Responsibility's (OBR) forecast growth rates for the UK economy but, as always, the Chancellor had a raft of statistics to show that the UK was well placed to weather the storm, and it felt like each one was a stick with which he could beat the opposition.
The key message was that we had choices (he mentioned "choose" five times in the first few minutes), and there was clear blue water between the options. Almost inevitably (although some felt he might avoid it), he found time to mention the EU referendum, quoting from the OBR that "a vote to leave in the forthcoming referendum could usher in an extended period of uncertainty". Nothing new, but clearly an attempt to plant the seeds of doubt about instability in the minds of those wavering between "in" and "out".
As we know, the Chancellor has always been one for underlying and recurring themes. In past set pieces we've had "the Northern Powerhouse" and "fixing the roof while the sun shines", although the latter might have morphed into "act now, so we don't pay later". There was some mention of the Northern Powerhouse today but the roof was conspicuous by its absence – perhaps the roof is fixed?
Instead the theme of this budget was "putting the next generation first" – in fact he mentioned "next generation" 18 times during his speech, the idea being that things would be sorted now rather than kicking the can down the road to be sorted in the future. In the short term this was slightly at odds with the figures as borrowing over the next few years is forecast to be higher than anticipated, yet we still end up with a surplus in 2019/20 as previously predicted.
Whilst the "next generation" might have been the explicit theme, there was the impression of an underlying theme of shifting the burden of the collection of tax to employers; the proposed changes to personal service companies for example, were indicative of that.
Prior to the budget there had been much talk about reform to pensions although the widespread feeling was that this would not happen. He chose to leave the current pension system largely alone but he did announce the introduction of the Lifetime ISA, which seems remarkably similar to one of the options for pension reform. Arguably it allows a more flexible way of saving with a flat rate government top-up, with the benefit of the possibility of being tax free on withdrawal - the future of pensions for the "next generation"?
If pensions had been a "will he, won't he?" topic, sugar tax was another one in the same camp. Whilst he did very little on the former, he delighted some and dismayed others with his announcement of a levy on soft drinks; predictably the Food and Drink Federation referred to it as "political theatre".
At Tolley, we've been studying and analysing the changes, to bring you up to date with what's changed. As always, it's been a late night and our teams of writers, editors and technical specialists have been working throughout the afternoon and into the night to summarise not just what the changes are, but what they might mean for you and your clients. I'm extremely grateful for their efforts, and I hope that you find the documents useful.
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