ONCE upon a time, Budgets were a surprise party. When the Chancellor stood up to speak, one never knew what he – there’s never been a she – would actually say. Taxes up or down, or political wheezes galore, we were all on the edge of our seats in anticipation. This tension was the result of a British economy that went up and down like a yo-yo, so the spring Budget was always something of a mid-course correction dictated by circumstance.

Later, when a certain Gordon Brown was entrenched in the Treasury bunker, Budgets became a mite more political and manipulative. Gordon was wont to leak his financial proposals in advance, the better to dominate the headlines and so wrongfoot the enemy (ie Tony Blair). The actual Budget speech saw Comrade Brown hammer his audience into submission with a vast array of statistics designed to prove just how clever he was. Only at the end of the peroration would Gordon extract a rabbit from his Chancellor’s magic hat.

Predictably, Brown’s annual performances began to suffer from his frustrations at still being Blair’s understudy. This culminated in his infamous 2007 Budget, when he scrapped the 10 pence starter rate for paying income tax without … er, mentioning the fact in his speech. Reading the small print in Brownian Budget documents then became a major sport.

Tory Chancellor George Osborne adopted Brown’s approach with similar disastrous consequences. In 2012, his “omnishambles” Budget imposed a “pasty tax” on some hot foods, only to see the measure instantly reversed before the Finance Bill got through Parliament. Osborne made a habit of writing the budget at the last minute, for political advantage. The result was that serious economic management went out of the window.

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What kind of Budget show can we expect from Rishi Sunak on Wednesday? True to the modern way, Sunak has been leaking juicy spending announcements in order to make us all feel good that we are getting some of our taxes back. Result: the weekend Tory press was full of the Chancellor’s plan to give shops and pubs in England grants of up to £18,000 each as part of a £5 billion scheme to “save the high street”. Sunak’s Budget is expected to see the total cost of Covid-related business, employment and other support measures rise to more than £300bn.

To date, the former hedge fund manager has been having a good run as Chancellor. The pandemic is the biggest economic emergency since the Second World War. As a result, he has a political carte blanche to spend what is necessary. Being able to spend, spend, spend without restriction makes the Chancellor very popular. While other ministers are locking folk up, banning holidays and disseminating bad news, Sunak is writing Treasury blank cheques. On Wednesday, however, that could change.

Partly this is because his Cabinet colleagues are growing jealous. Boris may play the buffoon, but he (and certainly Carrie Symonds) must be chaffing at all those media puff pieces promoting Sunak as the next PM. Time to demand that “Dishy Rishi” sticks to the day job.

There are lots of rumours that Sunak’s Cabinet colleagues want to see him deliver a medium-term economic strategy to get the economy moving again (ie deliver profits). Enough then of giving away goodies, it’s time to make capitalism work again for the capitalists!

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This has provoked a serious strategy discussion in Tory and business circles. The starting point is the huge financial deficit that Sunak appears to have run up in dealing with the pandemic. Now at nearly 100% of national income, the UK’s national debt has reached its highest level since 1963 – reflecting the huge cost of pandemic support measures such as the furlough scheme.

The BBC website explains that the national debt is “the total amount the government owes to its lenders”. Sunak’s problem is how to pay this back. Will he raise taxes to do so, thus threatening to curb people’s ability to spend?

But this discussion is not what it seems. For starters, the BBC’s definition of the national debt is misleading – either deliberately so or more likely because the corporation spends so much on the salaries of the likes of Laura Kuenssberg and Sarah Smith that it has nothing left for decent economics reporters.

The surge in Treasury debt since the start of the pandemic is not the result of the Chancellor “borrowing” (to quote the BBC) from the private sector. Instead, the Bank of England (owned by the Government) prints electronic money and buys government bonds, ie “lends” to the Chancellor. In other words, Sunak is literally printing money, not borrowing anything. And to the tune of £875bn at last count, versus a cumulative national debt of £2.1 trillion. Why, therefore, should the Chancellor be worried about repaying himself? Even the money the Treasury owes (very long term) to private pension funds carries a miniscule rate of interest.

Essentially there is no UK debt problem. So why would Sunak be thinking about a Budget that raises taxes and cuts welfare spending over the medium term? Sunday’s Tory media were full of “inspired” leaks suggesting the Chancellor is going to freeze income tax thresholds and possibly increase Corporation Tax and National Insurance rates.

Of course, Sunak may be indulging in a little psychological warfare by threatening higher tax rises than he actually delivers on Wednesday, in order to make us feel relieved when the worst does not happen.

Alternatively, this may be a softening-up process to ready us for bad news, ie the reversion of Universal Benefit to its pre-Covid level. I suspect it will be more of the latter. Why raise taxes and cut spending when you don’t have to?

I’m not suggesting there will be a return to full-blooded austerity, as in eliminating the deficit and “balancing” the national books. But I do think that former banker Sunak will signal that the days of printing money are over. His motivation is political, however, not economic.

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The Tories always position themselves as being fiscally “responsible”, as a way of winning middle-class votes and ensuring they get big donations from the business class. They can then brand Labour as “irresponsible” – as they did with Jeremy Corbyn, despite printing more cash in the pandemic than a Corbynista government would ever have dared to do.

Which means Sunak has to make some move towards a plan for fiscal rectitude, in order to keep his mad English nationalist and libertarian backbenchers satisfied. Expect Keir Starmer to back this return to fiscal “normality”, even if he quibbles about the details.

And here in Scotland? The Chancellor may announce the “winners” in his competition to award free-port status to local authorities daft enough to want to become mini tax havens and de-regulated, cheap labour zones.

One of these neo-liberal enclaves will be assigned to Scotland. I strongly advise my old comrade in arms, the Scottish Trade Minister Ivan McKee, not to touch this Tory Trojan Horse with the proverbial barge pole. For if Sunak has a long-term plan – and he certainly has – it is to turn the whole UK into an offshore, de-regulated zone of exploitation, in order to undercut the EU. Be warned.