It is difficult to appraise whether Philip Hammond’s emergence as the great statesman of his age is due to the pyrotechnic self-immolation of absolutely everybody who might have challenged him for the honour, or whether events have actually conspired to make Hammond the man for the hour.
The country is a good three years in to its political acid trip now. There is a growing sense that really it just needs to go to sleep. It’s got work in the morning. It craves the opiates that only Hammond can provide. Boring is the new rock and roll.
Which is not to say that Hammond is the most boring politician we have. He is not. We have loads. But there are different flavours of boredom. Jeremy Corbyn struggles to utter a coherent sentence, and is significantly less interesting than the ingredients list on the side of a cereal packet.
Theresa May is quite possibly the most boring person ever to have set foot in the Palace of Westminster, but she is also profoundly anxiety-inducing. She, the actual prime minister, would put the audience instantly on edge if she came up to draw the raffle at a primary school fete.
But Hammond provides that soothing reassurance. These days, the Budget is like the dull mutter of Radio 4, left on in the corner of another room. Yes, there were jokes, and yes, they were terrible. There were jokes that mutated into metaphors and became horribly disfigured. At one point, he lamented the fact that his main policy, a large increase in NHS spending, had been announced by Theresa May in June. This was a rabbit that had got out of his hat. “Some of my star bunnies appear to have escaped a little early,” he said. Quite what a “star bunny” is, only Philip Hammond knows. But evidently “star bunnies” have been hopping among us for months now, to the detriment of Philip Hammond’s Budget speech.
There was an announcement on business tax relief for public toilets, which came with a slurry of so many horrific gags in such quick succession, the air in the chamber resembled that which hangs above the gents conveniences at Glastonbury in the final moments before the suction pumps arrive. It would “come as a relief” to local councils, though he didn’t want to “get bogged down” in the details, but was pleased it “hadn’t leaked”. That’s the full house on toilet gags – or is it the royal flush?
It’s often suggested these minor spending commitments are invented solely to crowbar jokes in to the speech. George Osborne once pledged £40m for a “research hub to develop applications for the internet of things”, which is now widely perceived to have been entirely for the benefit of a gag about Ed “Two Kitchens” Miliband.
But who doesn’t go weak at the knees for dad jokes in a nation crying out for the grownups to come back?
On I believe four separate occasions, Hammond said that austerity is coming to an end, and as if to prove it, an unexpected increase in the overall tax take had, he announced, been handed directly to the NHS. No one will criticise him for that, but it was rather interesting that he still found time for not one but two attacks on Gordon Brown, he who had “sold off the gold” and so on.
What do I know, but I suspect the Conservatives’ now consistently repeated “austerity is over” slogan will come to be remembered as one of the stupidest bits of political strategy in years. Budget statements, more than anything else, make blindingly clear the gulf between the words of politicians and the lives lived by real people. Hammond, for example, announced that he would not be raising beer duty. I cannot remember any budget in the last 20 years that has not talked of either keeping the price of a pint of beer the same, or, at the worst, raising it “by a penny”. And yet, somehow, in that time, the price of a pint of beer has risen, at least in central London, from about two quid to about six.
Likewise, the Conservatives talk constantly about “freezing fuel duty for the ninth year in a row”. And yet the price of a litre of petrol has risen from about £1.09 to about £1.33 in the last 18 months.
When people hear the Conservatives talking about the “end of austerity”, I suspect this will translate with similar effect into the real lives of real people. Only this time, it will annoy them significantly more.
And more to the point, finding an unexpected £13bn in your back pocket and instantly spending it for short term political gain, well, there was a phrase you used to hear a lot round these parts, about how the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. You don’t hear that line so much these days, perhaps because someone’s politely told them that, during the years in which they argued over who was and wasn’t fixing the roof while the sun was or wasn’t shining, they allowed their own building to deteriorate to the extent that the cost of fixing it is now estimated at £7bn worth of public money.
At one point, as the room drifted off into contented torpor, Hammond muttered something or other about “confirming any new changes at the Budget next year”.
A voice from the Labour back benches, which turned out to be Paula Sherriff, rang out in the deafening silence. “You won’t be here!” she shouted. For both timing and delivery, a 10-out-of-10 heckle. Right up there with the best.
Hammond thought he had a sharp answer – that Sherriff had said this last year, and the year before. If that’s true, then certainly no one remembers it.
If she has shouted this out before, perhaps it died back then because it didn’t quite have the ring of truth about it. This time, however, one suspects Sherriff is on the money.
Whatever happens between now and then, it’s hard not to believe that Philip Hammond’s attempts to give the nation a quiet life will have come resoundingly to nothing.
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