If you want the measure of last week’s Autumn Statement, then you could do worse than just look at a screenshot of George Osborne delivering it to Parliament. There, sat behind the Chancellor, is an MP in a brown suit, with a red and yellow striped tie, and a badge pinned to his lapel. That MP is Robert Halfon.
Mr Halfon, who represents the Essex constituency of Harlow, has become a champion for what he calls ‘White Van Conservatism’. He has written about it for this blog, but the short version is that he wants a politics that stands up for white van drivers and others like them. This means cuts to income taxes and fuel duty, as well as better roads and more apprenticeships. And these are policies that Mr Halfon has had a hand in achieving. Barely a Budget or Autumn Statement now goes by without his name and work being mentioned. The Chancellor recently made the relationship official by appointing Mr Halfon as his Parliamentary private secretary.
The political priorities of Mr Halfon hovered above this Autumn Statement just as he hovered above the Chancellor’s shoulders. The most significant policy to be announced last week was, in effect, one to make white van drivers’ journeys more comfortable. This was the Government’s £15 billion plan for Britain’s roads, which was published in advance of the Statement itself, but was still technically part of it. This money will go towards widening, expanding and just generally improving the nation’s motorways and A-roads in the five years until 2020. Seldom has public spending been more necessary: in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, our road infrastructure was ranked only 28th in the world.
And that wasn’t all there was for the white van driver. Mr Osborne also confirmed that fuel duty will remain frozen for the duration of this Parliament. This is a promise that he has made before, but that was before global oil prices fell below $75 dollars a barrel, as they have done recently. This was supposed to be the price at which the Government would consider reintroducing the dreaded ‘fuel price escalator,’ by which fuel duty is increased by a penny on top of inflation. But now we know that won’t be happening. A penny may just be a penny, but this is still a relief for motorists. Every little helps, after all.
With a general election approaching, every vote helps too. And this is surely part of the reason why the Chancellor – whose calculations have always been political as well as economic – has signed up so enthusiastically to Mr Halfon’s White Van Conservatism. As the Sun put it in an article (£) highlighting the fuel duty freeze, as well as measures to cut the taxes paid by small business and by holidaying families:
“The blatant pitch to self-employed Brits who drive for work will be seen as a direct attack on Labour, after snobbish frontbencher Emily Thornberry was sacked for sneering at Rochester voter Dan Ware's white van and England flags.”
The statement behind the Statement was: vote for us.
But the impending election also complicates Mr Osborne’s plans. For all their difficulties with white van drivers, it still looks more likely that Labour will triumph next May. And this possibility makes last week’s Autumn Statement more uncertain than any that have preceded it under the Coalition. That grand £15 billion plan for Britain’s roads? It could be done away with, or at least reshaped beyond recognition, in Chancellor Balls’s first Budget. Prime Minister Miliband might dare to resurrect the fuel price escalator.
Yet the uncertainty persists even if the Conservatives are returned to Downing Street; we should know as much from their time in government so far. Back in the ‘emergency’ Budget that Mr Osborne delivered in 2010, it was anticipated that the structural deficit would be eliminated by this financial year. However, according to the forecasts included in the Autumn Statement, it’s now expected to take another three years. The problem isn’t that the Chancellor has failed to cut spending as he said he would. It’s that the economy, on which the Exchequer’s tax revenues rest, was sluggish for longer than many people hoped. Even the best laid plans can go awry because of unforeseen circumstances.
This simple fact has implications that stretch far into the next Parliament. With the global economy again starting to stutter, it could be that Mr Osborne’s deficit reduction programme is knocked further off course. What will he do in that case? Will he cancel or cut the £15 billion windfall for Britain’s roads? Will he go back on his pledge to not raise any more taxes to pay off the deficit? Will company car drivers, whose BIK rates are already set to increase by 2 per cent in each of the next four years, face even more pain? Politicians aren’t saying enough about their headline plans for the next five years, let alone their contingency plans. These questions are hard to answer.
Which leaves us with a lesson from Margaret Thatcher’s time in power. In 1989, her government published its own plan for improving Britain’s roads, called Roads for Prosperity, but many of its schemes were later cancelled after spending cuts and protests. Road-building, like so much else in politics, is a difficult thing. Yet it is part of the challenge that our current Chancellor has set himself. Either he must meet it, or explain honestly why he cannot. Otherwise, Robert Halfon might not be smiling the next time he sits behind Mr Osborne – but scowling.