Budget 2021: Tamara's Take - A pre-briefed budget boxes in the opposition

·2-min read

Journalists' inboxes are filling up with emails from the Treasury. Two more big announcements from the budget have been made public in the past 24 hours.

The National Living Wage - that's the minimum wage for people aged over 23 - will rise to £9.50 next April, helping around two million workers.

And today it was revealed that public sector workers - 5.7million NHS staff, teachers, police officers and the armed forces - would have their pay unfrozen from next year too.

Ministers cannot say what public sector pay will be, because the pay review bodies consider various factors for each occupation.

Paul Scully, the small business minister, notably would not commit to people being better off as a result, with inflation predicted to reach 4% this year.

He told Sky News the impact "could be anything", depending on how many hours people work.

While that may not reassure those worried about living costs this winter, he gave a hint of the direction of travel for public sector workers, saying the Treasury considered the 6.6% rise to the minimum wage was "balanced" and would "not stifle the recovery".

Unfreezing public sector pay - now the economy is, in Chancellor's view, recovering and given the government's new stated mission to create a "high wage economy" - is not a surprise.

Labour MPs should be on comfortable territory talking about pay and living standards, and they have already voiced concerns that the money will be swallowed up by tax rises, universal credit cuts and rising energy bills.

Their shadow Treasury spokesman on Sky News this morning refused to make specific demands on public sector pay.

James Murrary MP said the party opposed the government's tax rises - to National Insurance, and the freezing of the personal allowance threshold - and would look at taxes on "people with large property portfolios and stocks and shares", ahead of the election.

Responding to an hour-long budget statement, with rabbit-out-of-a-hat tax changes they cannot predict in advance, is one of the most difficult challenges for a leader of the opposition.

Even though this year much of it has been briefed out in advance in a blizzard of individual announcements, one Labour figure worries it has just allowed the government to "announce something they say is brilliant when we don't have any of the small print".

Labour have brought forward their call for a £10 minimum wage, having faced down demands at their conference for it to be £15 by the next election; and have a new dividing line in calling - reluctantly - for plan B COVID measures.

More of the painful measures and cuts will be apparent tomorrow, but framing an argument around a budget which, on the face of it offers higher pay and billions for the NHS, is already proving a challenge.

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