There were absolute scenes in the House of Commons on Wednesday. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (also known as Mad Man Hammond to his Conservative colleagues, or one would think so after his little performance) was hitting out the jokes. Cough sweets? Check. Kezia Dugdale? Check. Top Gear (of all things)? Check. As it became quite clear that Philip Hammond missed his calling in life, and really should have become a stand-up comedian, a cynical onlooker may have been inclined to think that he was trying to deflect attention from something.
A realist would have recognised this to be the truth.
Amidst the dire jokes, our esteemed Chancellor let it slip that economic growth for this year is forecast to be 1.5% which, if you’re wondering, is 0.5% lower than what was predicted in the Spring Budget. In fact, the long-term growth rate was predicted to be 2.5% two years ago. It is now 1.6%. It was also briefly (this being the operative word) mentioned that the debt continues to be far too high. And it was also let slip that we’re the sixth largest economy in the world. Sound off? That’s because we used to be the fifth.
Of course, this is all okay for Philip Hammond. He can afford to have a good old laugh because, at the end of the day, his wage means that he doesn’t need to rely on the NHS. That must come as a relief for him because it has been established that the ‘extra funding’ he gave to the NHS for winter amounts to only £350m for the whole of England. Not quite the £350m a week that Boris and co promised us during the EU referendum.
There was an irony, pointed out by John McDonnell, in the Budget. The Chancellor highlighted that there’s a ‘gap’ between planning permission granted and actual new houses being built. This is true: many potential plots are being left completely barren, and is a process known as land banking.
But, of course, Philip Hammond has first-hand knowledge of all this. Castlemead Limited, co-founded by Mr Hammond in 1984, have left a plot suitable for four properties completely empty for seven years, despite having the appropriate planning. Whilst he is no longer a director, a Trust of which he is the main beneficiary owns over three quarters of Castlemead. The impression given is that he missed the advice about those in glass houses not throwing stones.
Having asserted last Sunday that ‘there are no unemployed people’, Philip Hammond attempted to tackle the issue of work in the Budget. To do so, he announced a rise in the National Living Wage by 33p for those who are over the age of 25, with other (smaller) increases for younger age groups. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Very kind and generous, isn’t it?
Well, not quite. As I am sure you’re aware, the National Living Wage isn’t actually a legally enforceable wage. Allow me to rephrase: the National Living Wage is virtue signalling in an attempt to placate those pesky little workers. This therefore means that Hammond said people need £7.83 an hour in order to live but, because he didn’t increase the National Minimum Wage, they actually only should be paid £7.50 an hour. He gave us a Christmas present with one hand, and handed us the invoice with the other.
This Budget was safe, and it was safe because Philip Hammond had something to hide. He had to hide the poor economic forecasts, he had to hide his lack of acknowledgment of the social care crisis, and he had to hide that he was fighting for his job. Despite the jokes, Hammond presented a Budget of empty gestures and half-hearted consolation prizes in an attempt to avoid controversy. He succeeded in that but, in doing so, also succeeded in ensuring that nothing will change for the millions of people struggling to keep afloat.
And therein lies the problem.