Micro trumps macro
We'd forgotten what these kinds of Budgets were like. The last few Budget statements have produced plenty of satisfying macro headlines, with shock rises in borrowing, and/or shock spending cuts to pay for it.
But for most of the first decade of this century, this is what Budgets were like: the medium term borrowing numbers go up by around £10bn or so; the growth forecasts get revised (usually down); and the chancellor fills the rest of his speech with intricate "micro" measures to stimulate growth and/or achieve various other specific objectives that the Treasury has decided to endorse.
That is what we had from Gordon Brown, many many times. Perhaps surprisingly, that is also what we got from Mr Osborne today. There was even the obligatory cash-grab from an unpopular sector of the economy - in this case, big oil. Though, as befits a chancellor still in his first year in the job, there are some grand ambitions amidst the meddling.
As predicted, net borrowing will be £11bn higher in 2015-16 than had been forecast in November. Overall, the Treasury is borrowing £46bn more between 2011-12 and 2015-16. But the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has decided that nearly all of the increase is cyclical. The structural current surplus, the target the chancellor has set himself, has been cut by just 0.2% of GDP in 2015-16. That measure of the Budget will still be in surplus a year ahead of schedule, in 2014-15, as Mr Osborne planned in his first Budget.
The extra borrowing is the inevitable consequence of higher inflation and slower growth, which the OBR expects to push up the cost of benefits and debt interest. There has also been a slight downward revision in the revenue forecasts. As I discussed on Tuesday, this is because the OBR does not expect workers to be compensated for higher prices - the OBR forecast for labour income over the next few years (and thus income tax revenues) has been pushed down.
The growth forecast for 2011, at 1.7%, is now more or less in line with the market consensus, which is for growth of 1.8% this year. The OBR's forecast for 2.5% growth in 2012 is still well above the consensus, which is now for 2.1% growth. However, the OBR is not far off the Bank of England's forecast of around 2.7%.
But all these changes are small beer. He's spent money here and there, and raised it in other places - the big picture is no change. In 2011-12, for example, he's spending an extra £635m in 2011-12, on balance, but raising an extra £625m to pay for it.
The action, such as it was, came in that headline-grabbing cut in fuel duty (brought to you courtesy of oil companies in the North Sea) and in all those micro-measures to spur enterprise and growth, the sheer number of which would have made Gordon Brown proud, though not necessarily the content.
I asked Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, what would stop the oil companies passing on the cost of the extra tax onto consumers, at the pump. His answer, give or take, was that he didn't think they would, but they'd be looking out for it. Hmmm.
I also asked him, further to my earlier post this morning, why the government had chosen not to use the room for manoeuvre that it had to boost public investment, or to cut borrowing slightly more slowly. You will be shocked to hear that he did not accept the premise. I'm not sure I expected him to.
The chancellor has stepped back from merging the National Insurance and income tax systems altogether - Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS - said he wasn't surprised. But merging the administration of those two taxes, which he has now promised to do, will make a welcome difference to companies if they can iron out the many practical difficulties. I am intrigued to see how he can "preserve the contributory principle" for national insurance while making it substantially simpler for companies to manage.
There's plenty of tinkering in the much vaunted plan for growth. But the reform of the planning regime, taken alongside the localism Bill, will transform the way planning decisions are taken in the UK. Whether they will make a positive difference or a negative one, of course, will be hotly debated. But as with Mr Osborne's first Budget, you can't say it won't make any difference.