Life & Culture

Osborne, be bold in the Budget


In many ways George Osborne has been a disappointing Chancellor. The toxic inheritance of Labour's debt mountain, together with the rigours of coalition politics and the crisis in the Euroland, have left him with little room to manoeuvre.

But none of this really explains his failure to seize the high ground in rebalancing the UK economy away from finance and underpinning growth. Rather than using tax policy in an aggressive way, he has been strangely dormant.

Osborne's answer has been to allow the Governor of the Bank of England to lead the charge on growth. The Bank has done this through low interest rates - held at 0.5 per cent for three years - and a massive programme of quantitative easing (QE) of £325 billion.

This policy has had distorting effects. Aside from depriving savers of decent returns, it has cost corporate pension funds by £90 billion according to the National Association of Pension Funds.

QE has also raised concerns among the monetary purists about the dangers in terms of future inflation as the policy is unscrambled.

The window for the Chancellor to seize back the initiative in Wednesday's budget looks more open than any other time during his office.

The economy is in better shape than many people expected at the start of the year. Inflation is trending down, unemployment has started to flatten out, consumer confidence has been improving and some of the key surveys of services and manufacturing have been trending upwards.

However, the biggest plusses are global: Euroland is still in deep trouble but the immediate crisis of a breakup of the single currency and the possible desertion of Greece from the Eurozone has retreated as a result of the one trillion euros of long-term refinancing offered to the Continent's banks by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. The other bit of better news is the resilience of the US economy. The unemployment rate in the US has been falling for 18 months.

Nowhere has the recovery been stronger than the San Francisco Bay area, home to high-tech, where the resilience has seen a number of Jewish-founded high-tech businesses such as Facebook head for the public markets.

What should Osborne do? Clearly, his LibDem colleagues in the coalition want to pursue a policy of wealth envy with their proposed mansion tax or an alternative tycoon tax. But while these proposals may hog the headlines it is lowering taxation and creating better incentives for business and entrepreneurship that should be the real target.

He does have a little more wriggle room than he might have expected. Public finances are looking healthier than forecast and the deficit could undershoot projections by as much as £10 billion. The temptation is to do something populist but what he should be doing is moving forward ambitions to have the lowest corporation tax in Europe.

At present the headline rate of corporation tax stands at 28 per cent and the Chancellor had pledged to lower it to 25 per cent in this Parliament. He should bring it down to 20 per cent.

The move would be self-financing, attracting companies that have fled to Ireland including Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP. The incentives for big corporations to spend vast amounts avoiding tax, rather than paying it, will be reduced. It might also attract US companies to the UK.

The Chancellor could also look to the US. One of the reason why the jobs market has bounced back there so quickly is because of the reduction in "payroll taxes" - the equivalent of national insurance contributions (NIC) - introduced by President George Bush and left in place by Obama.

In this country one of Labour's last acts before leaving office was to impose a surcharge on employers and employees NIC of one per cent. As promised Osborne rolled back part of the surcharge in his first budget. Nevertheless, there is more he could do, especially to make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses, the engine of growth, to take on new staff.

Boldness on tax reductions is what is called for if Osborne wants to go into the next election with a story of rising growth. He must muster the willpower to act or the economy will sink back into the mire.

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