Tax cuts allow a cautious president to create few headaches for workers

  • By Chris Mason
  • Political Editor, BBC News

We've got a glimpse of the most important clash of the general election campaign.

The struggle for economic viability.

It was a budget where the president tried to portray himself as a careful, cautious defender of the economy.

The National Insurance drop, the same cut a few months ago, equates to a bigger tax cut.

But Jeremy Hunt said there were no surprises, no fireworks that could immediately change the Conservatives' chances.

Mr Hunt instead tries to make the argument that the economy is slowly but surely recovering.

For example, in my interview with him, he pointed out that middle-income earners would be better off if we compared the National Insurance cuts and the frozen tax thresholds, which have resulted in huge tax hikes for many.

But the macroeconomic argument to come is broader than that. It takes into account inflation, mortgage costs, rents and income per head.

As figures trade in the coming days, there's something beneath that: sentiment. Do people feel better, do they feel they have more disposable income and do they feel economically confident about the future?

Those three questions shape the political debate over the economy between the Conservatives, Labor and others.

Labor thinks they are back to being taken seriously by many in the economy, and there is polling evidence to back this up.

They believe Labor's often Achilles heel is strength now, as they feel many feel worse under the Conservatives.

Conversely, for the Tories, their strength is now a vulnerability, the economy, which has presided over the turmoil of recent years.

Much of that turmoil was entirely beyond their control: the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, both of which prompted vast public spending to support families and businesses, many of whom were very grateful.

The effects of that spending are now visible in tax rates and the national debt.

But Labor is also keen to place some of the blame on the Tories. “Where's Liz? Where's Quasi?” Labor MPs shouted during the budget speech.

Pantomime-esque questions with political bite: Labor likes to remind people that the previous prime minister and the previous president caused an economic disaster with real consequences.

Jeremy Hunt is trying to set the direction of travel beyond what he announced: he wants to scrap National Insurance altogether, he told me.

Now it might be like saying that you or I want to win the lottery: what we want to do and what can happen are not the same thing. Scraping it costs a fortune.

But it is an indicator of aspiration, and an attempt to shape the points of difference between conservatives and labor.

Can he do enough to make people think again about switching to Labour?

Polls suggest he has a job on his hands.

Meanwhile Labour, realizing they are losing more elections than they are winning, is trying to reassure floating voters.

So, in the budget or in the last six months this government has been announcing many things, including many that were in the budget, they have carried.

Now their headache is how they pay for some of his promises by accepting the president's tax cuts.

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