Rishi Sunak arrived in the Commons carrying what surely must have been the lightest red box in Budget history.
Never before has the Treasury briefed so much of a Budget prior to the Chancellor’s statement; furlough extension, Universal Credit uplift, VAT relief, cash for the vaccine roll-out, tax rises and much more was already known.
In times gone by, such a leaky ship would have seen the captain resign. Most notably in 1947, when Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton quit after details of his speech were published in an evening newspaper before his Commons appearance.
Not so for this Chancellor, who has gleefully embraced his dual role as Second Lord of the Treasury and the government’s Instagrammer-in-chief.
One year ago I was preparing for my first ever Budget.
A lot has happened since then, but the promises that underpin our plan remain unchanged.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) March 1, 2021
Almost every element of Sunak’s Budget was pre-briefed, photographed, videoed and hashtagged at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Treasury briefings and posts on social media effectively made today’s statement little more than another photo op, which was rather a surprise, given this Chancellor’s love of pulling rabbits out of hats at set piece Commons events.
The closest Sunak got to waving his magic wand was announcing a new “super-deduction scheme”, which will allow businesses who invest in the next two years to claim 130% of the cost against their tax bill.
Read the small print and it seems only those who spend on as yet unknown “plant and machinery assets” will be eligible – one to keep an eye on.
Moving to the Union, Sunak used the Budget to emphasise that he leads a Treasury that “acts for the whole United Kingdom”.
In so doing, he confirmed more than £1billion in extra cash for the Scottish Government, funds for a green transition in Aberdeen and an acceleration of the city growth deals.
— HM Treasury (@hmtreasury) March 2, 2021
His pledge to freeze alcohol duty fell short of Scotch whisky industry calls for a duty cut however and there was no mention of extra compensation for fishermen, who have been rocked by Brexit export delays in recent months.
Questions also remain over Sunak’s commitment to the devolution settlement, given his Budget announced cash for two funds – levelling up and the shared prosperity fund – that contravene the norms of devolution. Expect much to be made of that as we move into the Holyrood election campaign.
In all, this was a Budget that will be remembered more for its cheesy social media videos than key announcements.
We’re still not out of the pandemic and this is Sunak’s bid to steady the course.