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A third Budget in 12 months will always struggle for originality and impact. George Osborne looked like a chancellor of the exchequer going through the motions on Wednesday. His statement had no theme beyond caution in an unquiet world, no purpose outside the avoidance of fuss in the run-up to the real set-piece event of the year, the parliament and possibly his career. June’s referendum on EU membership pervaded this event, even getting an explicit mention as the chancellor invoked the Office for Budget Responsibility to flag the risks that come with Brexit.

Under the strategic stasis, there was some tactical smoothing of feathers. Businesses inconvenienced by his recent expansion of apprenticeships and the national minimum wage were given lower corporation tax and rates. Capital gains tax was cut: something Mr Osborne has been plotting since almost the day he raised it as an austerity measure upon becoming chancellor.

Tory MPs, many of whom resent Mr Osborne’s pro-EU line, had to be soothed too, or at least not provoked further. This is why he forswore an increase to fuel duty — which, given the oil price, seemed logical — and raised the threshold for the higher rate of income tax. Of his eye-catching measures, only the new sugar duty could be said to offend Conservative instincts and, even then, the party’s MPs are rarely libertarian purists.

Add in some modest help for savers and the overall impression was of an almost apologetic Budget, crafted with stability and party management in mind. Ordinarily, a Budget at this early stage of a parliament would be the moment for tough, provocative decisions: more detail on how to achieve that contentious fiscal surplus, for example. But the referendum makes this a pre-election Budget of sorts. Mr Osborne had no incentive to take risks.

His dread must be that souring forecasts for growth, productivity and revenue get worse, not better. His decision to miss his debt target was pragmatic but embarrassing. And for all his talk of the “next generation”, the rhetoric that really stuck concerned the “cocktail” of global economic risks that could weigh down Britain’s economy. The referendum is not the end of his problems, nor the country’s.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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