While governments can use a Budget to set the weather, the set-piece occasion always carries risk and offers an opportunity to the Opposition to present an alternative. Keir Starmer’s rebuttal aimed to capitalise on the chance that the more Hunt pretends everything is fine, the more he risks alienating voters with growing day-to-day anxieties.
Starmer’s attack line focused on drawing focus back to the macro-economic picture: “It has been a year of stagnation. Growth is non-existent. We need an industrial strategy that removes barriers to investment. The UK is the ‘sick man of Europe’ once again.” The question he wants to stick in voters’ minds is whether or not they feel better off under the Tories than they did at the last election.
Labour immediately drew a clear dividing line with a pledge to restore the pension lifetime allowance if the party wins power at the next election. Rachel Reeves said the “gilded giveaway” for the 1% is the “wrong priority, at the wrong time, for the wrong people”. In Field’s post-Budget Analysis webinar, Bill Esterson MP agreed: “Giving the wealthiest people in the country tens of thousands [of pounds] during a cost-of-living crisis is a crazy economic policy … It’s just the wrong priority. After 13 years, the Government is out of ideas.” This has already raised questions over whether this will cause workers to save as much as they can for the next 18 months, only to retire just before the next Election to get the most of Hunt’s tax giveaway.
The shadow chancellor seized on select business reactions to the Budget to prosecute her case. On Twitter, she highlighted the FSB warning the plans will “leave many short changed”. “The Government failed to reform business rates which we have repeatedly called for” said the British Chambers of Commerce. It’s easy to cherry pick the lines which best suit you, but the attack lands when for many businesses it rings true. Reeves and Starmer worked hard on a ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ to charm business leaders precisely to ensure they get a hearing on issues such as these.
Yet despite all this, the core issue for Labour persists: how to set out a convincing vision for what it would do differently and how it would pay for any additional spending. Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet welcomed the extension of free childcare, a subject on which they claim shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has made the running. But in many areas – on the level of personal taxes, on whether and how much more to invest in the NHS – clear answers from Labour remain thin. To an extent this is unavoidable, but voters are savvy at detecting and if necessary rejecting unsubstantiated promises.
As the Shadow Cabinet have told us all week, Labour’s mission is to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, by driving productivity and growth across every part of our country. The essay question for Starmer remains how to convince the country he has a plan to deliver his mission.