The trouble with the Budget is it’s mired in show business - it’s made into a pivotal event. And it is, politically, but not to the extent as the BBC covered it, with a pre-show followed by a four hour long pre- and post- speech analysis which included a tracking aerial shot of Mr. Hammond’s Jaguar as he made his way to parliament. Now, I’m not criticising the BBC, in part because I adore the absurdity of it all. I’m just setting the scene.
Of course, almost as much show business and performance went into the address itself as did go into the coverage of it. A jokey Budget is how many newspapers are describing Mr. Hammond’s hour-long delivery in the Commons. Some will argue it shows confidence and gives the government a much-needed sense of swagger; some that it shows Mr. Hammond fighting for his corner; some will say it shows a government and a Chancellor who is already sinking, so why bother to be bothered about further perceptions?
From my point of view, and what is almost a defence of the Chancellor, though the jokes were awful, when we all know the content of whatever is said will be reduced to a half-dozen bullet points by the commentators covering it, why not give them more cheesy content to sift through? But this, nor the other reasons suggested, are really the reason the Chancellor put on a show.
Though more jovial than most, Mr. Hammond’s tone and turn of phrase was just mimicry of what is seen in that chamber every week, and indeed what was seen immediately before during PMQ’s. Politicians speak in such a way as to embed their real politicking within a defensible question or statement. Many see it as annoying, or sycophantic. Yet that is the reality, and one the Chancellor cannot shy away from.
When he speaks about his decision to, “choose the future,” as if he had a choice, or about his desire for his children to live in a country where people have good jobs, as if this were somehow a new revelation, surely the intention is to paint himself as some political visionary. Yet it says something about the orator, I suggest, when the entirety of a speech’s punch is found in the rhetoric. Indeed, those same words could have come out of Michael Gove’s mouth and they would have had the same impact. In a profession based on candidacy, this is a problem.
Now it is unfair to say this is the exact problem that faces this government, not because it’s untrue, but because such a statement implies this is the only government that is forced to hide behind vapid statements, bluster and stage lights. Indeed, much of Labour’s high and mighty tone invokes such methods. But it is this government, distinguished with a nightmare (bureaucratically and logistically, if not actually) in the form of Brexit on the one hand and a failed yet crucial economic policy on the other that mean it seems to consist almost entirely of empty phrases spoken by interchangeable and frankly forgettable characters.
This is of course the sign of a dying government - one with an obvious lack of vision and too much time spent in office to suddenly decide to find a new one. The fact such a government remains in power demonstrates the priority is not serving, but sustaining.
Brexit remains its own animal, yet the rhetoric spouted by the government of full sail ahead whilst fires break out left right and centre shows they are, somehow, also drowning. A stronger government might be honest with the public that there are challenges in the process, some of which were unforeseen and some which stubbornly persist. Yet this government cannot for fear of upsetting the balance of power and collapsing into civil war.
On the economy, we see a similar story. Seven years into an austerity policy and government debt to GDP (this week’s favourite statistic for citation) will only soon begin to peak. Meanwhile, Andrew Neil of the BBC questioned whether the promise to eliminate the deficit has been abandoned, and Norman Smith (also of the BBC) asked whether Britain just needed to accept we are a poorer country? Yet Mrs. May and Mr. Hammond will continue to refer to Britain’s, “strong economy,” and their party’s economic credentials.
This is the equivalent of closing one’s eyes and putting fingers in one’s ears and shouting, “la la la!” into the aether. A strong government would, at the very least, address these concerns and debate the effectiveness of their choices. Yet for the Conservatives to abandon austerity, they would also have to abandon their legacy of the past seven years. They would have to accept they were consistently wrong, and would have to acknowledge the sense of stagnation (at best) that is gripping the country. They’d self-destruct, shooting themselves with their own silver bullet - economic credibility.
The Budget serves as a fine example of all of this. Immediately after, buoyed by the announcement on stamp duty abolition, the Chancellor may have believed he’d done what many thought was impossible - delivered a good Budget. Yet within hours the maths had been run, and the projection looks an awful lot grimmer and problematic. Mr. Hammond had to U-turn on his previous budget. This is also a sign of weak government, as the Conservatives should most certainly know. But it is much more concerning when a government is so fragile they cannot even risk changing their mind.