Pre-election Budget: the Chancellor giveth, the Chancellor taketh away

I remember listening to an interview on the Today Programme with Alistair Darling just after the pre-Budget report back in December. In a moment of Mrs Merton-esque incredulity, presenter Evan Davies began: "Tell me, Chancellor. What made you decide to raise benefits just before the election?"

Indeed - after yesterday's Budget, in which the rich (and scrumpy-lovers) lost out and those at the lower end of the earning scale seemed to be the winners, it was difficult not to observe the parties well and truly gearing up for the election.

It was a clever Budget, actually. With the economy still struggling to recover from the recession - £167bn worth of borrowing may be less than was expected but it's still, as Management Today put it, 'a pretty horrendous number' - to the Labour government, the business vote counts for more than ever before.

And on the surface of it, small businesses were the winners: a one-year cut to business rates, a new credit adjudication service for businesses who think they've lost out unfairly on a bank loan and a guarantee that banks will lend more than £90bn this year were all encouraging. Darling also gave you a one-year cut in business rates, capital gains tax relief for entrepreneurs and a promise to give more government contracts to entrepreneurs.

But what of the things he didn't mention? A hike in Employers' National Insurance contributions, announced during the pre-Budget report, was only briefly alluded to (although David Cameron dwelled on it for longer, describing it as 'a tax on every job in the country'), while a 1p rise in fuel duty is going to be very expensive for thousands of businesses.

The clamp-down on non-doms is also a big issue. Darling's measures to expose those who are hiding their income in Belize, Dominica and Grenada elicited a roar of approval from the Labour front benches yesterday - but that could severely impact levels of investment in the UK. Non-doms make up a significant portion of private investors in the UK and, love them or hate them, the new measures could be devastating to businesses.

So while on the surface, it appeared Darling was trying to court the business vote, dig deeper and, to a certain extent, you are also the ones who lose out. As Cameron put it, it felt a bit as though the government was giving with one hand and taking with the other - I suppose it just comes down to whether the giving and the taking away balance out.

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