This article originally appeared in Real Deals on 24 March 2022.
Rishi Sunak might have hoped that his first truly post-Covid fiscal statement could be one brimming with sunny optimism. With the Perspex screens, masks and social-distancing markers gone from the Commons, he perhaps imagined enjoying his time in the spotlight buoyed by impressive growth figures, record employment and harmony throughout the land.
Instead, as the Chancellor rose to deliver his Spring Statement he was faced with an unenviable challenge. Rising energy prices, global disruption to supply chains –exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war – have driven up living costs to the point of crisis. Add to this the threat of inflation creeping into double digits before too long and Sunak’s task begins to look Sisyphean.
With this context in mind, it was crucial that the Spring Statement needed to outline the government’s plans for addressing immediate economic imperatives and set out a coherent plan for tackling the economic headwinds that threaten to cause economic hardship for millions over the coming months.
And that’s what we got, to an extent. Sunak’s approach sought both to meet the short-term challenges which the economy faces and to demonstrate something of his own ideology in charting a course for the longer term. Since he took office in No.11, the Chancellor has had little opportunity to set out his stall as a true fiscal conservative. This Statement was a marker, outlining a multi-year plan towards economic strength and sustainability, and looking beyond immediate tax rises and medium-term tax cuts.
Sunak’s tone was, for the most part, sombre. He repeated the government’s commitment to provide military and humanitarian resources to Ukraine and to ongoing sanctions on Russia, but warned that this would not be cost-free. He told MPs to prepare for the economy and public finances to worsen – “potentially significantly”. The OBR feels similarly, and has revised its GDP growth forecasts downwards, to 3.8% in 2022 and 1.8% in 2023.
Sunak set out headline-grabbing plans to raise the National Insurance Contribution threshold by £3,000 – bringing it in line with the income tax threshold – alongside a drop in fuel duty by 5p per litre for 12 months, and exempting energy efficiency measures from VAT. The Chancellor will use these as clear examples of the additional – decidedly Conservative-sounding – support he is offering.
He has deliberately chosen not to capitulate to those calling for another spending spree to handle the cost of living, instead choosing to save and to leave a clear “margin of safety” to create fiscal headroom. This has not gone unnoticed. The RAC has already called the fuel duty cut “a drop in the ocean” and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has expressed concern about support for those on means-tested benefits. This may come with a political cost. Sunak has gambled that the benefits of focusing on tax cutting outweigh the risks, but with even the Daily Telegraph focusing on the coming cost of living crisis, there is every chance that Sunak will be forced to revise his fiscal strategy.
In tone and emphasis, this was a very different Sunak to the one who delivered the Budget last October. Where that Budget made large spending commitments – raising the budgets of every government department – the Spring Statement acknowledged that rising inflation will mean that the real-terms increases will now be less than anticipated. Where last year’s Budget revolved around the ever-present phrase “Levelling Up”, this time the Chancellor didn’t say those magic words once.
Instead, the Chancellor unveiled his new “Tax Plan” – an approach to reduce and reform taxes for people and businesses, with more detail on measures due in the Autumn Budget. The publication of the Plan signals a clear direction of travel for the Conservatives for the remainder of this parliamentary term, and the rationale seems clear: the Chancellor wants to keep backbenchers concerned about the tax burden becoming too high on side. His ambition to lower the basic rate of income tax by 1% by 2024 is a sure sign that reducing the tax burden on voters will be a key part of the Conservative strategy at the next election.
But the government will need to walk a careful tightrope over the next two years. It will have to provide enough support to those in immediate need, maintain sufficient headroom to deal with further uncertainty, and still offer enough eye-catching policies to the electorate to reverse their current deficit in the polls.
The Chancellor has been clear that engaging with businesses will be key to the success of this plan. He has long sought a “business-led recovery” and is likely to provide ample opportunities for businesses to make their voices heard as the next Budget approaches. With changes to R&D tax credits, reductions in investment taxes and new incentives for employee training all under consideration, investors will want to make sure that their portfolio companies think carefully about the changes that they would like to see, and develop clear strategies for conveying those ideas to the government over the coming months.