For the last few years the format of the Chancellor’s set piece statements to the House of Commons has been that he had to report a diabolical set of economic figures and then put a gloss on them with announcements on tax and spending - sometimes not much of a gloss.
This year the story was slightly different. With the numbers at last looking up – notably growth up and a deficit falling faster than predicted earlier in the year - the Chancellor was keen to draw attention to them and to downplay the impact of at least some of the measures that he was introducing. The most eye-catching was the raising of the state pension age to 70 for today’s school leavers. This has long been in the pipeline but the decision to ‘leak’ it the night before the Autumn Statement was a good way to get its coverage out of the way early.
In terms of changes for business there was relatively little to be excited about. The cuts to Business Rates for small businesses are welcome in-and-of themselves but are mainly aimed at high street retailers for whom they are a significant cost burden; interestingly this is the second issue, after energy prices, from Ed Miliband’s allegedly dangerously socialist conference speech on which the Tories have been forced to tack to Labour.
The abolition of employers NICs for the under 21s is welcome too but will surely have the most impact in poorly paying service sector industries. The best news for engineering based manufacturing was probably the increases in budget and ambition for UK Export Finance which will see its commitment limit doubled and new effort going into the Direct Lending and Working Capital schemes which have so far yet to take off. In the same policy area there was also a commitment to a significant review of how UKTI works before next year’s budget - watch this space.
Inevitably there were things that weren’t there. A rumoured increase in the Technology Strategy Board’s budget didn’t materialise and perhaps more worryingly there was little sign that the Government is prepared to act on the prices that industry pays for energy. There was an excited passage about the prospects raised by shale gas, but nothing for the here-and-now to help British business maintain its competitiveness.
This was George Osborne’s penultimate Autumn Statement. It is probably the last time that he will strike his ‘imposer of austerity’ pose. From now on, starting with next spring’s budget, things will get a lot more political and when he goes to the despatch box the 2015 General Election will be centre stage. There isn’t a lot of scope in the public finances for giveaways but he might just find some wriggle room…