Sunak and Hunt are emerging from a bruising few months.
The cost of living crisis, questions about the fiscal competence of the Conservatives, and languishing poll ratings meant the duo face a political and economic mountain to regain momentum ahead of an election.
Today’s Budget therefore had to serve two purposes. It needed to continue the government’s response to the immediate economic and financial challenges facing businesses and households. It also had to offer a plan for the future, responding to Labour’s recent polling dominance.
Hunt responded to this challenge with a lengthy statement, which put meat on the bones of the Prime Minister’s five priorities and set out a direction for how the government plans to grow the economy.
Here are our key takeaways from Hunt’s Budget:
Economic growth is the central mission of the government
The more positive fiscal outlook – driven by falling energy costs and wider economic changes – has given Hunt more headroom to act. He used it to focus on supporting businesses and driving economic growth, which has become the defining mission of the government.
He will seek to achieve this by supporting businesses that invest through the capital expensing policy, further support for life sciences and creative industries and even producing a ‘Quantum Strategy’. It reflects a more targeted, transactional approach to this government’s relationship with business and prioritisation of high potential and high growth sectors. For those that invest, or have a plan to do so, this government wants to help those plans come to fruition.
The programme for growth can only be delivered with business help
The flip side of this Budget is a reflection that the government has limited resources, time and money to make big things happen. Governments of the recent past would highlight big infrastructure programmes to drive growth and support the economy. Even Hunt highlighted these types of policies in his last statement.
This Budget strikes a different tone. Through a mixture of tax changes and funds, government wants businesses to work closely with central and local government to deliver its priorities. The new Investment Zones are the clearest example of this, with government wanting combined authorities, universities and businesses to work together to drive regional transformation. It means that whilst the Government has set an overall direction, it is now looking to others to fill in the detail and help make its plans a reality.
Stealing a march on Labour
Labour has been on the front foot, with Starmer’s national missions defining the early battleground for the General Election campaign. Hunt’s statement began the Conservative Party’s fightback, stealing his headline childcare policy from Labour. By capitalising on Labour hesitancy to release specific details, the government has now taken the initiative in this debate.
Questions on the pace, scale and ambition of the policy are likely to follow in the days and weeks ahead, but the biggest impact could be on Labour. This episode is a lesson for Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet. By not fleshing out their platform, they are now at risk of a significant ‘love bombing’ operation from Sunak and Hunt. For businesses and public affairs professionals, it means Labour may accelerate its policy development and programme of big announcements.
The election starting pistol has been fired
This budget will focus minds in the Government and Opposition. Hunt focused his statement on the audiences that could provide a route to retaining power. More money for red wall constituencies, support for older voters and backing for businesses that could help fill the party’s coffers set itself up for the coming battle.
Meanwhile Labour faces a wake-up call that the road to power will not be straightforward and that there is still fight left in the Conservatives. A mixture of targeted funding, retrenchment of core messages on the value of work and businesses and the assault on Labour’s programme is the clearest demonstration of how the Conservatives plan on rebuilding their political momentum.
Sunak and Hunt will hope this Budget is the beginning of a long road back from the dismal poll ratings they face, and for Labour marks the first stern challenge they have faced since taking a commanding lead. The reaction to the Budget will define whether this is a turning point, or another nail in the coffin of the Conservatives.
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