Philip Hammond's Spring Budget: what he said – and what he really meant

Our Chief Political Commentator reads between the lines of the Chancellor’s Budget speech

John Rentoul
Wednesday 08 March 2017 15:59 GMT
‘The no-spin Chancellor strikes again’
‘The no-spin Chancellor strikes again’ (Getty)

What Philip Hammond said: I report today on an economy that has continued to confound the commentators with robust growth.

What he really meant: Sorry commentariat, I am going to rub your noses in all your wrong predictions.

What he said: We are building the foundations of a stronger, fairer, more global Britain.

What he meant: Boring is good.

What he said:Indeed amongst the major advanced economies Britain’s growth in 2016 was second only to Germany.

What he meant: My officials were unable to do anything to the figures to make us come out ahead of them, apart from something about winning the World Cup once.

What he said: Mr Deputy Speaker, there is no room for complacency.

What he meant: There is room for complacency. Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the opposition.

What he said: As we prepare for our future outside the EU, we cannot rest on our past achievements...our job is not done.

What he meant: Which is just as well, otherwise I could stop now and we could all go home.

What he said: Our task today help ordinary working families as we build an economy that works for everyone.

What he meant: Our task today is to repeat the Prime Minister’s soundbites as often as I possibly can.

What he said: I turn now to the OBR forecasts. This is the spreadsheet bit but bear with me because I’ve got a reputation to uphold.

What he meant: I used to run businesses you know. I understand spreadsheets. I am even capable of filling in my own tax return, putting the extra salary I get as a cabinet minister in the right box. Mr Competent? You’re looking at him.

What he said: The OBR now forecasts borrowing in 2016-17 to be £16.4bn lower than forecast in the autumn.

What he meant: Sorry commentariat: you all fell for the “£12bn better than forecast” spin from the no-spin Chancellor. It is much better than that.

What he said: Overall public sector net borrowing as a percentage of GDP is predicted to fall from 3.8 per cent last year to 2.6 per cent this year. And for those who care about such things, it means we are forecast to meet our 3 per cent EU Stability and Growth Pact target this year for the first time in almost a decade. But I won’t hold my breath for my congratulatory letter from Jean-Claude Juncker. Borrowing is then forecast to be 2.9 per cent in 2017-18 and then to fall over the remainder of the Parliament.

What he meant: I will slide in the witty reference to Mr Juncker in the middle of the run so that no one notices borrowing will go up from 2.6 to 2.9 per cent. The no-spin Chancellor strikes again.

What he said: The OBR now forecast that debt...falls in 2018-19, for the first time since 2001-02.

What he meant: Just as the total debt has been predicted to start falling many times before.

Philip Hammond made a litany of gags in his Budget 2017

What he said: I am listening to the voice of business.

What he meant: I used to run businesses you know. Sometimes I talk to myself. And I say to myself that I have reviewed our research and development tax credit regime and concluded that it is globally competitive.

What he said: Taken together, this is a further £435m cut in business rates, targeted at those small businesses facing the biggest increases, protecting our pubs, and giving local authorities the resource to respond flexibly to local circumstances.

What he meant: Patch and mend. Nothing wrong with patching and mending. And a populist tax break for pubs. Everyone will have forgotten my promise of a long-term review by the middle of next week. Mojitos all round.

What he said: Just as a strong economy requires a tax system that is competitive, a strong society requires one which is fair...I make no apology for raising additional revenues.

What he meant: I am not going to apologise for sounding like a Labour chancellor: I am just going to to try to obfuscate and bore you while you wait for the important stuff about social care.

What he said: From July we will introduce a tough new financial penalty for professionals who enable a tax avoidance arrangement that is later defeated by HMRC. Taken together these measures will raise £820m over the forecast period.

What he meant: Boring is good.

What he said: There are many good reasons for choosing to be self-employed or working through a company. Indeed, I have done both in my time.

What he meant: I used to be a business person. You can trust me.

What he said: The Prime Minister has asked Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, to consider the wider implications of different employment practices...He is clear that differences in tax treatment are a key driver behind the trends we are observing. A conclusion shared by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation.

What he meant: A tax rise is on its way. I am spreading the blame among third parties as widely as possible.

What he said: A well-functioning market economy is the best way to deliver prosperity and security to working families.

What he meant: I am a Conservative.

What he said: But Government recognises that sometimes markets, particularly in fast developing areas of the economy, can fail people. Sometimes, the market does not deliver the outcome the text books suggest it should. And when that happens, this Government will not hesitate to intervene.

What he meant: But we Conservatives are trying to steal Labour’s voters, as Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t seem to want them.

What he said: Ahead of the Green Paper, we will take the first steps to protect consumers from unexpected fees or unfair clauses, to simplify terms and conditions, and to give consumer bodies greater enforcement powers.

What he meant: Click Agree to proceed.

What he said: These measures will...tackle some of the frustrations that sometimes make it feel that the dice are loaded against ordinary working people going about their everyday lives.

What he meant: Poor sad dull people. I, with my interesting life (I used to be in business you know), will try to bring a little sparkle and flash to their meaningless existence.

What he said: This Government places addressing the UK’s productivity challenge at the very heart of its economic plan.

What he meant: As all chancellors always say. Absolutely nothing we can do about it, but I’ve got to go through the motions or people will think I’ve forgotten.

What he said: There is still a lingering doubt about the parity of esteem attaching to technical education pursued through the Further Education route. Today we end that doubt for good, with the introduction of T-Levels.

What he meant: Today we once again promise to bring about parity of esteem. Tomorrow we will promise it again. Goodness me when did that rock get to the bottom of the hill?

What he said: Re-training is vital, with many of our young people today needing to retrain at least once, and perhaps more often, during a working life that may span more than 50 years.

What he meant: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Nine-to-five in between. You go to work, you retire and then you die. What is the point?

What he said: Alongside additional funding, the Health and Communities Secretaries will announce measures to identify and support authorities which are struggling, and to ensure more joined up working with the NHS.

What he meant: Join up your working. Show your working on the exam paper and then join it up. Use different colours if you like. That will save all the money we need.

What he said: For the avoidance of doubt, Mr Deputy Speaker, those options do not include, and never have included, Labour’s hated death tax.

What he meant: Sorry commentariat, the idea we might opt for that was a bit of expectations management too.

What he said: The other [big pressure on our hospitals] is inappropriate A&E attendances by people of all ages...I am therefore making a further £100m of capital available immediately for up to 100 new triage projects at English hospitals in time for next winter.

What he meant: To tell people go away you’re not ill enough.

What he said: Building on the foundation of our economic strength. Reaching out to seize the opportunities that lie ahead. Backing our public services. Supporting Britain’s families. Investing in the skills of our young people. And making Britain the best place in the world to do business.

What he meant: It’s the “ing” words. I’ve nearly finished. Get ready to wave your order papers.

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