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A March budget has been delivered - but still not a spring in the Tories' step

If you were looking for pre-election fireworks in this budget, look away now.

There was neither soaring rhetoric to win the hearts and minds of the nation nor eye-catching policies to back it up.

Jeremy Hunt was true to himself, choosing fiscal responsibility over political excitement.

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The shadow of Liz Truss's mini-budget still looms large. Mr Hunt was taking no risks with the public finances in a budget that was far smaller in tax cuts and policy decisions than the autumn statement.

Normally, when insiders tell you that the chancellor is limited in what he can do - in the context of the economic backdrop and that this budget will be "a proof point" that the prime minister is delivering on his plan, rather than a "poll gamechanger", a few months from an election - you take it with a pinch of salt.

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I wasn't the only one, with senior Tories telling me they were still expecting more than the two percentage point cut to national insurance on the day.

When the chancellor didn't offer up more, the verdict from some senior Tories was swift: "Terrible," texted one former cabinet minister, "this won't shift the needle". Another told me that this budget would make "zero difference" and MPs would be unhappy: "They were hoping for more."

What this does tell us is that when Rishi Sunak said his "working assumption" was for an autumn election, he meant it: this was not budget trying to set the political weather, rather it was aimed at keeping a steady ship.

"Safety first," is how one former Treasury insider described it, pointing out that the chancellor could have been more aggressive on tax cuts if he had decided to cut back on future spending commitments.

Ahead of the budget there had been lots of chatter that the chancellor was going to shave 0.25 percentage points off departmental spending plans after 2025 to raise another £5bn or so for tax cuts (this could have gone towards another 1 percentage point cut in national insurance) but decided not to do it.

Perhaps he was mindful of polling suggesting the public doesn't much like the idea of cutting spending on public services, but his decision not to set this trap for an incoming Labour government has left some Tories pulling out their hair.

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One told me: "He could have created a wedge issue by cutting spending assumptions, by a quarter point or even a half point to then use on tax cuts.

"Labour would then have to back tax cuts or spending cuts, and perhaps we could have then pressed them on higher tax question.

"But we've done just enough on tax cuts for Labour to accept it. They didn't create a wedge and MPs were looking for that from an electoral perspective.

"Maybe he had one eye on the Kwateng mini-budget, so didn't want to take on more risk when it came to the fiscal forecasts."

Politically too, the tax-cutting chancellor is still facing the double whammy of the overall tax burden of GDP still going up and heading for a 70-year-high by the end of the forecast period (2028-9), while the Institute of Fiscal Studies noted in its budget wash-up that average households would still be worse off going into the next general election than they were in 2019.

Safety first when you are 20 points ahead (Sir Keir Starmer) makes some sense, you don't want to squander your lead.

But when you're 20 points behind, your party are clamouring for you to go all out and try to close the gap.

The chancellor and his prime minister have clearly decided that the route to better polling is steady as she goes: a January national insurance cut, followed by another cut in April when energy bills should be coming down too.

The interest rates could be falling, alongside inflation in the summer.

The hope will be then that the feel-good factor is on the up, and the financial forecasts are improving to perhaps give the government the option of more tax cuts.

But right now, this budget doesn't look like a moment for renewal. A March budget delivered, but still not a spring in the Tories' step.