Budget brings back good old political knockabout!

Rishi Sunak in Downing Street

Rishi Sunak's budget prompted accusations of political bribery from opposition politicians. - Credit: PA

As the country struggles to find a way back to normality after the Covid crisis, last week's budget is starting to look like a very big step to business as usual so far as politics is concerned. 

It had all the elements you expect of a budget over the last few years - lots of good headlines on the day itself and many people thinking they'd do quite well out of it.

Then the gradual realisation over the next 48 hours that there were some pretty unpleasant surprises contained in the small print - and the opposition get the chance to cry "foul" over one of the key elements of the announcement.

On the day of the budget there was one piece of excellent news for Ipswich. It was granted £25m from the government's Towns Deals Fund to be spent on 11 projects around the town - but mainly in the centre and Waterfront.

That was the maximum that members of the Town Deal Board expected and they were quite rightly delighted - as were business groups and most other groups with an interest in the development of the town.

The only sour note came from some opposition politicians who, while welcoming what the award could do, insisted it was the fulfilment of a bribe announced in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

So was it an election bribe?

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Elections in democratic countries are usually preceded by promises made by political parties hoping to win power. In 2019, the Tories promised to create a Towns Fund to help places like Ipswich - secretary of state Robert Jenrick came to Ipswich to emphasise that fact - and are not following up on that promise. 

That doesn't, of course, mean it wasn't an "election bribe" and opposition parties would be expected to make that point. 

What we're talking about here is traditional political knockabout - it's the kind of thing party members have been involved in for decades. Only now, they have social media to give more of them a voice.

There is nothing new under the sun in all this. Back in the early 2000s, the Conservative opposition at Suffolk County Council described the offer to set up what was then called University Campus Suffolk as a "bribe" to Ipswich.

And on a national scale (for those with a long memory) the Humber Bridge was built after a promise by the Labour government during a by-election at Hull in 1966!

So Ipswich's £25m is either a winning government honouring an election pledge or a naked political bribe. Which you believe probably depends entirely on which way you voted 18 months ago - and nothing will change your mind even if there are councillors creating a twitter-storm on the issue!

The other budget-related issue is potentially more serious for the government - and has the look of a u-turn down the road all over it.

The decision announced a couple of days after the budget to award NHS workers only an extra 1% pay rise looks like a really bad misjudgement - and a decision that will upset Tory voters, as well as their opponents.

What really upset many is that the government had already voted for a 2.1% pay rise for NHS staff in the coming year back at the start of last year - and then spend the next 12 months telling everyone how wonderful the workforce was.

To then turn around and say they'll be getting half of their planned rise does look pretty poor - and presents plenty of ammunition to their political opponents.

Mr Johnson is a politician who likes to be liked (as Marcus Rashford has found out) and is also someone who is known to bend if he feels the pressure is getting too tough.

If Mrs Thatcher was still in Number 10, I'd have said the NHS staff didn't have a hope of getting any more - she was a politician who stuck to her guns even if it was unpopular - but today's Conservative PM is a very different character.

The final pay deal has still to be agreed and confirmed. If I were an NHS worker, I wouldn't give up hope on getting a 2.1% pay rise just yet.

And meanwhile, the government is really giving the opposition a chance to get some good headlines on an issue that millions of voters feel passionately about.

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