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Hawthorn budget analysis: May election unlikely, but traps set for Labour

With tetchy exchanges and party tribalism on full display, the spring budget was an insight into the year to come. Set against a gloomy economic backdrop, the Chancellor tried to draw a clear line between the Conservatives and Labour ahead of the looming election.

Beset by pressures from within his own party, Hunt was obliged to find tax cuts. With forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) giving less fiscal headroom than hoped, rumoured plans for a 1-2p cut to income tax were shelved in favour of a 2p national insurance.

He argued that tax cuts have only been affordable because of the government’s approach to tackling inflation. Inflation is now predicted to fall back to the 2% target by Q2 2024, a full year earlier than predicted. Now that wage growth is outstripping inflation, the Conservatives will want to wait until autumn to call an election. This will buy time for voters to start feeling better off.

High Growth Sectors

Hunt focused on reforms in areas he has described as high-growth industries of the future – financial services, life sciences, technology and the creative industries. These areas will be a significant focus of the government over the coming months, with consultations and proposals to be outlined in more detail. He announced several pro-investment reforms, including changes to pension investment and the next stages of the LIFTS initiative. He also launched a consultation on a new platform to allow private companies to trade their securities, known as PISCES. Continuing the successful policies of providing tax cuts for the filming industry first introduced by George Osborne, Hunt announced a further £1 billion of new tax reliefs for the UK’s world-leading creative industries.

The Economic Outlook

The bigger picture challenge for the Chancellor is whether these tax cuts are realistic. The OBR has warned that current spending plans carried a level of “uncertainty”, as much of the new spending is funded by assumed departmental savings to the tune of £19 billion for unprotected public services, a figure the Resolution Foundation has described as a “fiscal fiction”. This will cause challenges for the next government, whatever its colour, as departments find their already tight budgets stretched even more thinly. More big tax cuts or spending increases in the coming years are now off the table. In stark contrast to Labour’s inheritance in 1997, where they could increase National Insurance specifically to fund NHS pledges, a prospective Labour government in 2024 would not have ample fiscal headroom to spend on public services without significant tax hikes – an argument Labour doesn’t appear to want to have.  

Hunt’s changes to the non-dom tax relief and extension of the windfall tax are an attempt to make up this shortfall whilst laying dangerous traps for Labour. By stealing two of the Shadow Chancellor’s tax-raising ideas, Labour’s room to call for increased spending has been snatched away. Labour is extremely cautious about making spending commitments, with the most notable example being the recent U-turn on a commitment to spend £28bn a year on a green prosperity plan. This was swiftly followed by an announcement to increase the windfall tax, much to the dismay of the oil and gas industry.

In this context, the Chancellor’s plan hasn’t been without risk, he was immediately criticised by Energy Minister Andrew Bowie after extending the windfall tax on oil and gas. This blue-on-blue is a flavour of what may be to come as Conservative party discipline continues to break down under the pressure of poor polling results.

What does this mean for Labour?

Labour’s ‘Ming Vase’ strategy – placing caution over passionate campaigning – is now ingrained in the Opposition’s strategy, and Starmer’s pitch at the election will reflect this. Whilst some consider it dispassionate, it may help to carefully maintain Labour’s significant polling lead as the election grows closer. The Conservative’s best chance of holding on to power would be to win back public confidence in the economy, so the Labour front bench is cautious to avoid commitments that the Tories could use to paint them as the party of unfunded spending.

Keir Starmer has responded to the budget by calling for a general election on May 2nd. He used his relatively short response to attack the government for 14 years of low growth, falling living standards and, despite the Chancellor’s claims to the contrary, the highest tax burden in 70 years.

An Autumn Election?

Labour will feel relieved that there was no income tax rabbit, but they know they have a difficult task ahead to communicate any new policy announcements and how they will raise the money without raising taxes. In the next few weeks, they will pile on the pressure for a May election; but the mood music from the budget signals the Tories are playing for time. The challenge for the Government is whether this budget will reverse their precarious footing.

To find out more about how to prepare for the general election and what this pivotal year could mean for your business, please contact our political advisory team, led by Mark Burr, Partner at Hawthorn.

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Hawthorn Advisors Strengthens Senior Team with Four New Partner Appointments

Hawthorn Advisors is pleased to announce the senior appointments of Victoria Wallin and Richard Suchet to support the growth of the consultancy.

Both Wallin and Suchet join Hawthorn as Partners, after co-leading the Corporate Communications practice at Portland.

In addition to Wallin and Suchet, existing Hawthorn consultants, Jon Wynne-Jones, formerly Head of External Communications at dmg media, and Mark Burr, previously Deputy Director of European Policy at News Corp, have both been promoted to Partner.

They join the existing board of Partners; co-founders, John Evans and Sir Ben Elliot; former editor of the Today programme, Sarah Sands; former BBC political correspondent, Ross Hawkins; Steve Atkinson, ex Group Corporate Affairs Director at Standard Chartered Bank; and previous COO of King’s College, Anna Maria Clarke. 

Wallin joins with over 20 years’ experience advising clients – from international corporates to disruptive start-ups, membership bodies and campaign groups – such as Wimbledon, Pfizer, Heathrow and the NSPCC.

Suchet joins Hawthorn after almost seven years at Portland where he advised a range of international and regional brands and businesses including Netflix, Universal Music, KPMG and Snapchat. A former journalist and broadcaster, Suchet was previously correspondent for Sky News and LBC.

Both Wallin and Suchet will report to Hawthorn co-founder & CEO, John Evans who commented: “Victoria and Richard bring invaluable experience. They both have huge energy and ambition and will be a terrific cultural fit at Hawthorn. We have ended our 10th year with double digit growth and an expanding team of over 70 consultants. This ongoing success is contingent on hiring the best talent and Victoria and Richard, together with a number of other hires we’ve made recently, will allow us to continue to scale.”

Wallin said: “As one of London’s fastest growing, independent strategic communications consultancies and with a presence across the UK and US, I’m thrilled to be joining Hawthorn and look forward to working with the team in delivering impactful communication strategies for our clients.”

Suchet added: “With its international client base – from private and public companies, multi-nationals and governments to fast-growth businesses – and impressive team of consultants, this is an incredibly exciting time to be joining Hawthorn and I’m very much looking forward to supporting and delivering the next stage of growth.”

Evans continued: “It’s also great to be promoting Jon Wynne-Jones and Mark Burr to Partner. Both Jon and Mark have been instrumental in driving growth over recent years and their promotions reflect their ongoing contribution to the business.”

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