Such a rare thing Phil Hammond is, a politician that hates the limelight. So determined is he to avoid the showmanship and the attention-seeking gimmicks of his predecessors that he’s only doing two budgets this year.
I for one can’t recall what specific reasons Spreadsheet Phil gave for his radical plan to replace the Autumn Statement and the spring Budget with a Spring Statement and an autumn Budget, but the real reason became quickly clear.
Stick two budgets in your first year and you can kick all that tricky Brexit stuff eight months down the road and make your first one just pure, unadulterated banter. The surprising thing really is that Gordon Brown didn’t think of it first. Not since at least the days of Geoffrey Howe, and possibly even Sir Stafford Cripps has a Chancellor afforded such a high priority to top-drawer lols.
Yes, the Brexit Budget must be coming in November, because it didn’t get a single solitary mention in what will forever after be known as the Banter Budget.
Utterly devoid of policy, sure, but generously stocked with uncharacteristically sick burns, predictably at Jeremy Corbyn’s expense.
At first, when the Chancellor announced a treasury-backed revolution in artificial intelligence, nuclear robotics, space exploration and driverless vehicles, it seemed like the £270m he had allocated for the purpose might not be sufficient. But it turned out not to be the cheapest industrial revolution in human history, but rather the most expensive one-liner, given that sum involved is so utterly diminutive the whole policy must only exist for the purposes of his pre-planned joke. “Driverless vehicles,” the Chancellor added with meticulously crafted nonchalance, “a technology the party opposite knows a lot about.” The house erupted. To Corbyn’s credit, he did not flinch once as his face aggressively ripened into a prize-winning raspberry.
Hammond jovially tore into his own Prime Minister, who’d announced all his International Women’s Day pledges before he could. It would, after all, be a full hour before the promised an extra £350m to Holyrood and gestured sarcastically to the SNP for a cheer that never came, but it wasn’t long before he was back on his favourite subject, the Labour leader, who was “so far down a black hole even Stephen Hawking has disowned him”.
Quite why Stephen Hawking, the world’s pre-eminent expert on black holes, and thus more acutely aware of their sizeable dangers than anyone else alive, would be among the last and not the first, to distance themselves from someone on their way down one, is a question only the Chancellor can answer. Perhaps jokes are not meant to be dissected in this fashion. But in the absence of policies, something must fill the hole.
It would certainly be fair to say that the suddenly statesmanlike Hammond rose to the occasion, but it helps that the occasion has lowered itself to meet him. In this sudden, self-inflicted age of political pygmies, it does not take much to stand above it all. Hammond is not so much a tall poppy as the last dandelion left on the scorched earth.
As Jeremy Corbyn offered his response, with all the gravitas of a radio left switched on in the corner of a room, the Prime Minister just stared at the ceiling and shook her head. The Chancellor, who could never be so rude, just chatted to his parliamentary secretary in the row behind. Though the Labour leader offered no jokes, the Chancellor still laughed when appropriate, which was often.
However, I predict he’ll be laughing less come the autumn, when Brexit will have become a heckler that can no longer be ignored.
That is, of course, if he gets that far. Hammond’s best joke of the day was his first. He compared current unexpectedly favourable economic conditions to those which his predecessor Norman Lamont had praised in his own budget 24 years ago. “Ten weeks later, he was sacked,” Hammond said. The Tory benches laughed in unison. But they didn’t know, by this point, that the joker-in-chief was about to put up national insurance for self-employed workers, and break the 2015 manifesto, a policy already being described as the “biggest budget cock-up since Lamont”. Ten weeks and counting, then.