Ghosts of Budgets past

What really goes on behind the door of No. 11 Downing Street in the run up to
the Budget? Media reports alluded to the chancellor putting the final touches to
the speech or package of measures, giving the impression that he was sitting in
a comfy armchair, suitably relaxed.

Surely it wasn’t like that? For a start, his relaxing armchair was no doubt
buried under mounds of Budget submissions. There would have been an endless
succession of advisers rushing in, bearing forecasts and figures, all of which
had to be reconciled. He would have no doubt wanted to announce a sweetener or
two, perhaps something with a greenish tinge.

This year’s Budget was a particular challenge, not least because it was
Alistair Darling’s first full speech. But at least the economy isn’t in crisis
and there isn’t a collapse in sterling ­ ordeals some of his predecessors have
had to deal with. So on the eve of the Budget, maybe he thought that it would
all be relatively easy. And then the ghosts appeared.

The ghost of Budget past ­ pointing to last year’s Budget, which included a
great deal that might normally have been left for this year. Altering things
that he has inherited would be rather difficult.

The ghost of Budgets present ­ it might be argued that his first effort ­ the
pre-Budget report left something of a hangover for the chancellor, coupled with
lots of ominous predictions about what the announcements on capital gains tax,
residence and domicile and other matters could mean in the long run.

The ghost of Budgets’ future ­ those economy figures seem to indicate a
slowdown rather than a meltdown. But that ghostly future Budget almost looks
like one that will have to raise taxes to plug gaps if things don’t go well. And
the vision of a simplified, coherent tax system that is internationally
competitive may be a little further away than it seems.

Darling has faced a number of challenges. Taxwise, in many ways he could have
taken 12 March off as holiday and said that a Budget wasn’t necessary this year
(after all we have over 30 tax changes in the pipeline).

Perhaps his biggest challenge was simply to be upbeat, convincing listeners
that prospects for the UK economy are good, that spending is under control and
sufficient for needs ranging from defence to transport, and that the tax system
is being well managed. In other words, a haunting task for the chancellor.

John Whiting is a tax partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP

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