Philip Hammond’s Budget contains some big numbers and ambitious promises on housing but you don’t have to delve very far to find the real priorities.
Contrast, for example, what’s happening with housing, tax and welfare, two different measures that were heavily predicted and one that was desperately needed.
Stamp duty is being cut, but the chancellor has gone further than the expected holiday by abolishing it completely for first-time buyers of homes worth up to £300,000 or the first £300,000 of homes worth up to £500,000. The cut applies from now and will cost £3bn by the end of 2022/23.
Problems with universal credit are being addressed with measures including the scrapping of the seven-day waiting period, making advances easier to get and allowing continued payment of housing benefit for two weeks after a universal credit claim. The total cost is £1.5bn by 2022/23 and there is another delay to the rollout.
The universal credit changes are welcome but will still leave claimants potentially facing destitution and people in work thousands of pounds a year worse off than they would have been under the previous system.
For all the sound and fury over national insurance and the self-employed, it is still a sideshow in wider debates about tax, employment status and rights at work.
Philip Hammond’s unraveling Budget matters politically and it signals both the strength and the weakness of the government. Only a chancellor facing the worst opposition in decades could even consider a measure that breaks four separate commitments in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Only a prime minister with a small majority could be forced to retreat at the first sign of Tory dissent and newspaper headlines about white vans.
Much of the blame lies with the ex-chancellor now trousering £1m a year on top of his MP’s salary for his advice and speeches. It makes you wonder how George Osborne is being paid for all that hard work and hope that he’s about to get clobbered for tax because it’s through a personal service company.
It was Osborne who in 2015 abolished Class 2 national insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed (from 2018) and gave them access to the higher state pension via Class 4. If he had introduced an increase in Class 4 contributions at the same time, few people would have complained. Instead he posed as the great reforming chancellor, agreed the manifesto pledge and left Hammond to fill the holes in his spreadsheet.
Combine these different measures and the treatment of the self-employed looks (reasonably) fair: most of the lowest paid will pay less, there’s a better state pension than before, and the burden falls heaviest on people earning more. But try and defend this week’s Budget announcement using that argument and you look like a shifty betrayer of ‘ordinary working families’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.