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Philip Hammond has today confirmed himself as Syd Little to Theresa May's Tommy Cannon

Despite the ritually self-effacing quip about loving a spreadsheet, something dangerous may have been detectable today: the embryonic signs of hubris

Matthew Norman
Wednesday 08 March 2017 18:26 GMT
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Have the Chancellor and the Prime Minister shown the first signs of hubris?
Have the Chancellor and the Prime Minister shown the first signs of hubris? (Reuters)

The best news for the public finances is that, contrary to pre-Budget rumour, the Chancellor didn’t impose a tax on parliamentary wit. On today’s form, had he trialled such a levy to improve social care, hospital porters would be tipping elderly patients into skips by Easter.

Generally, I’m all for middle aged dullards deluding themselves. It’s how the likes of me get through the day. But Philip Hammond’s misdirected faith in his stand-up skills takes it too far.

In a speech that malevolently defied its billing as the shortest since Disraeli, he needlessly confirmed himself as the Syd Little to the PM’s Tommy Cannon.

While a double act of two straight performers might struggle to sell out a canoe, packing the Commons on Budget Day is no problem. And Tory MPs are the most easily amused audience outside Wimbledon’s Centre Court, where they yield bladder control whenever a pigeon lands near the baseline.

Sadly, the one piece of May and Hammond’s music hall byplay came too late for most viewers. Almost everyone who tuned in at 12.30pm will have missed it due to having a) flipped to a Friends repeat or b) fallen into a coma. We’ll touch on it below, but by then this episode had been titled ‘The One Where Phil Cracks Zingers Before Relapsing Into 1976 Polytechnic Accountancy Lecturer Mode’.

Budget 2017: Gags and gaffes from Philip Hammond's first budget

A joke about Jeremy Corbyn being “so far down a black hole, even Stephen Hawking has disowned him” made no sense. His closest approach to the dwarf planet Wit Minor came in a riff about research into driverless vehicles – a technology, he said to Corbyn’s rage, the party opposite knows something about. Almost enough there to eke a titter from a hyena on nitrous.

Yet despite the ritually self-effacing quip about loving a spreadsheet, something dangerous may have been detectable. Did we see, from Hammond and a borderline triumphalist May, the embryonic signs of hubris?

Neither is cocky by nature, in the Blair-Cameron mode. Both trade by necessity on reassuring dullness. Yet there was a masterful air Hammond, and earlier about May when she did her Edward Heath shoulder-shake in PMQs, that struck me as their idea of swagger.

If so, there’s no mystery why. Lacking any opposition worth the name – as Hammond underlined with his remorseless teasing of Corbo – can ruin your game. You see it on Centre Court when a superior player faces an injured opponent. With the match so blatantly in the bag, the dominant player gets complacent, loses focus, and starts making unforced errors.

Whether there were any in this speech may not be clear until it’s been exhaustively analysed, though the National Insurance raid on the self-employed (writes this self-employed person) won’t be popular with core Tory voters.

But regardless of the detail, Hammond’s tone might activate the sirens. Such obligatory rot about “our greatest achievements lie ahead of us” sounds far worse than vacuous cliche in this current context. At the end of a speech in which the word “Brexit” was never spoken, it sounded amazingly smug. Before the trade negotiations have begun, you’d have to be clairvoyant to have a clue idea about the future.

With zero visibility because of the peasouper enshrouding the road ahead, Hammond and May were cruising in top gear. He rattled off the one-liners that would have him bottled, rightly, at the Glasgow Empire. She chortled away behind him, and chipped in to the aforementioned Vaudevilian banter, which had a touch of needle to it.

“It says here that I,” said Hammond, verbally italicising the “I” to protest about her nicking his sweeties by making the announcement first, “will commit a further £20m to campaign against violence against women and girls...”

“Well,” she retorted, flushing at the rebuke, “it is [International] Women’s Day.”

Budget 2017: Seven key points

This Rotarian take on Gordon Brown’s “You’ve stolen my f****** Budget” was a lonely spot of drizzle on Hammond and May’s sunlit parade. Otherwise, he projected hyper-confidence, even to viewers who had surrendered the will to comprehend his words. That may be down to more than the assumption that the Tories couldn’t lose to Labour under its present leadership were Mrs May replaced by Rose West.

It may also be because the Chancellor is in fact clairvoyant. In 2006,he claimed £5.23 on expenses for a set of “superior” teaspoons. The following July he claimed for an identical set. In January 2008, he bought another eight teaspoons, at £3 a pop, from John Lewis. Then came the scandal.

The most plausible explanation for his cutlery turnover is that he bends spoons – and if he is the Treasury’s Uri Geller, maybe he can see into a golden economic future.

If not – if what we saw from him and May today were the first green shoots of hubris – it might not take too much rain, in such dangerous and volatile times, to grow them into the sort of avenging Triffids that have a habit of strangling complacent politicians to death.

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