Zombie Budget Time

Budget day is normally a Chancellor’s chance to shine — the one day when the Prime Minister lurks in the shade.

And a man as ambitious as George Osborne wouldn’t usually shy away from an opportunity to step into the spotlight.

But this Budget is probably going to be a little bit different — get ready for the Zombie Budget.

Remember the Zombie Parliament? In the dying days of the Coalition, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, unable to agree on much beyond their general dislike for each other, just sat out the clock in the final months before last year’s election, and Parliament did almost nothing.

We’ve blundered back into that territory again, and for a very simple reason — the EU referendum.

It’s quickly assumed a position of total political dominance — any decision any minister wants to take must first be assessed for its possible impact on June’s vote.

Anything that could turn people against the government, and towards the exit door, is simply not going to happen.

Difficult decisions are being delayed across Whitehall — and the Budget is no exception.

So no sudden shake-up of the tax relief on pensions, and probably no big shift in fuel duties.

In fact, probably not very much at all. This is the fourth major economic statement from the Chancellor inside a year — even if there wasn’t a referendum on the way, there’s not a great deal left for Mr Osborne to announce.

Much of the ground work is already in place — working age benefits are being frozen until 2020, public sector pay rises are held back to 1% for the same 4 year period.

If he’s looking for a rabbit from the hat, it could be a sudden move to boost the tax-free personal allowance — the kind of thing voters might want to reward a government for.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t clouds on the horizon — the slump in oil prices, falling stock markets, low inflation and static earnings all mean the Treasury will see smaller tax receipts.

And that makes it even harder for Mr Osborne to meet his legal obligation to reach a budget surplus by 2019.

Many MPs, including a fair few on his own side, wondered why the Chancellor would renew such a difficult commitment — one he’s failed to reach before — only this time with the weight of law behind it.

It’s probably occurred to George Osborne too. We’ve only been in surplus for 8 of the last 60 years.

But for now, the only thing that matters is winning that referendum.

The economy, and everything else, will just have to wait.