Jack Blanchard: Pressure is off as unflappable Osborne steers a clever course

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WHEN the Chancellor rose to his feet to deliver the third Budget of his career, amid raucous cheers from two of the three main Westminster parties, there was little indication that this was a man under pressure.

Yet 12 tough months have passed since George Osborne last stood at the dispatch box to make a rhetoric-charged Budget speech in which he pledged to “put fuel in the tank of the economy” and spark a manufacturing boom he dubbed “the march of the makers”.

And such claims have seemed laughable at times over the past year. Petrol prices have continued to soar to record highs, while manufacturing output has flat-lined – along with the rest of the economy – to such an extent that fears are growing of an entire “lost decade” of little or no growth.

But Osborne looked anything but cowed before the Commons as he calmly confirmed that growth figures remain miserably low, and unveiled plans for further huge cuts to welfare spending, a tax grab on Britain’s pensioners and an insistence that he will fly full in the face of public opinion by bringing down taxes for those earning over £150,000 a year.

Still the youngest Chancellor that Britain has known in well over a century after almost two years at Number 11, Osborne has shown a remarkable ability to shrug off criticism despite the stubbornly flat-lining economy.

Even those who despise him on the Opposition benches have a grudging respect for the way he has charted his way through such troubled waters while himself remaining somehow unscathed – if not markedly empowered.

Indeed, at present he remains the only realistic rival to Boris Johnson as the party’s next leader, and it is with one eye on this rather longer game that he enjoys indulging the Right of his party with his anti-green rhetoric – and, more presciently, his persistent talk of tax cuts for high-earners.

Even by his own standards, Osborne’s decision to cut the 50p tax rate was audacious. Few in the Cabinet would have dared push for it earlier in the year due to the toxicity surrounding high pay in post-crash Britain. The risks remain plain for all to see.

But Osborne made his case triumphantly in the Commons, producing with a flourish Treasury figures which he said proved that cutting the top rate to 45p will have little or no impact on the public finances. How his backbenchers cheered.

The move is vehemently opposed by Labour, of course, who have noted with glee the recent opinion polls which show the measure is deeply unpopular with a strong majority across the country.

Those same polls have left the Prime Minister nervous of the cut, and led to enormous hang-wringing too among the Conservatives’ coalition partners.

Ah yes, the Liberal Democrats. Their role appears destined to be forgotten in a spending plan which by its very nature of its delivery will always centre around one man and his speech – the Chancellor.

But behind the headlines, there is every indication that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have extracted some notable prizes for their grudging concession on 50p tax rate, and for their support for the beleaguered Health and Social Care Bill which dragged itself battered and bruised across the Parliamentary finish line earlier this week. For the reality is that the showpiece item in this Budget, the big giveaway, is the acceleration of income tax cuts from the bottom up. The point at which people start paying tax will soar to £10,000 in the next two years – up from just £6,450 when the coalition came to power in 2010. Make no mistake; this is a sizeable achievement for the Lib Dems.

This is a policy Clegg had outlined years ago, a policy he said during a speech in Leeds before the general election would be a vital a counterbalance for the spending cuts which were to come, a helping hand for the less well-off as cherished public services began to melt away. At the time, it felt like few were listening. But now that same policy finds itself as the centrepiece of the Chancellor’s budget, the only hand-out for the masses at a time when there is painfully little to give away.

But it is Osborne who will inevitably take the credit.

Several of his other changes will also grab headlines, of course – a raid on pensions, extra money for child benefit to offset tax cuts for higher earners, and a surprise reduction in corporation tax, too. But beyond these usual Budgetary games of tax and spend, there was another little innovation from the Chancellor which just might have a deeper impact upon the years ahead.

The personalised budget statements which will be sent to each home from 2014, outlining how much each person has paid in direct taxation and how that money has been spent, have a whiff of gimmickry about them – but, in fact, have the potential to be much more far-reaching.

How much easier for a future Chancellor to further cut spending, when it is made clear to a worker earning £50,000 a year that they spent nearly £5,000 on welfare that year? It will be much easier to cut spending on international aid, on debt repayments and on the EU when it is all laid out in black and white.

The Chancellor is renowned for enjoying the sport to be found in politics. With one eye on his backbenches and the other fixed firmly on a greater prize, the Chancellor is playing a long game indeed.