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Sensitive to electoral pressure, especially from the young, Conservatives wanted Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer to spend more on housing, infrastructure and healthcare. Vigilant to any backsliding from Brexit, they also requested more contingency funds for a hard or messy departure. Traumatised by the attempted increase in national insurance contributions last spring, they expected him to do all this without raising taxes. Outright refusal would invite their anger, and his own removal.
In torturous circumstances, Mr Hammond did what he had to in order to survive. He gave his critics at least some of what they wanted, including an extra £3bn for exit-planning and a range of interventions in the property market. He announced no provocative revenue-raising measure. He alienated no vocal constituency. Just as important to those who have him down as a block on exit, he even spoke in sanguine terms of Britain’s prospects outside the EU.
It is foolish to assume his survival so soon after his speech. Botched Budgets, including his own in March, take a while to be found out. To judge by the immediate atmosphere, however, he has discouraged his enemies for a while. The concessions he announced were helped by his underrated fluency at the despatch box. He will never be invited to open at the Apollo, but the diversions into humour from a man they call (with the bitterest irony) Box Office left him looking like an island of sangfroid in a party overrun with ideologues and hot heads.
If the Budget was a modest political success, it came at some cost. Chancellors tend to use their first post-election Budget to make unpopular decisions. The bet is that these will pay off by the time of their next encounter with voters. Mr Hammond’s decision to waive this chance was forgivable, as he had to survive the month, never mind plan for a remote future, but it does leave the government exposed to events. If it cannot do anything controversial now, can it ever?
His outward optimism also came at the cost of candour. Mr Hammond introduced a Budget that was about “much more than Brexit” and stood up the claim with investment in productivity. But to make only passing mention of the biggest rupture in Britain’s economic relations since the war was to encourage investor fears about the government’s preparedness. He was even vague about what the extra £3bn he set aside would actually do.
Nor did he spell out the bleak meaning of the latest economic forecasts. Mr Hammond had to read out the downgraded numbers for growth and the public finances from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. The OBR supplies the figures, not the rhetoric: it falls to the chancellor to interpret them for the country, preparing people for painful years ahead if the data point that way. He only did this elliptically.
Beyond the narrow question of his job security, these forecasts constituted the substance of the day. Less than a decade old, the OBR now anchors government policy and influences the political atmosphere. Its challenge is to preserve its independence against pressure from those who read a pro-European bias into its (and anyone’s) dismal projections.
On the subject of angry Eurosceptics, they must now decide whether to continue their hostile pursuit of Mr Hammond. Next to his hyper-political predecessors, George Osborne and Gordon Brown, who cultivated the media and tooled up with vigilant advisers, he can cut a friendless and exposed figure. What he does have, however, might prove more effective than a loyal clique in saving his hide: the perception outside government that he is a grown-up. His departure seems inevitable until your eyes sweep the parliamentary Conservative party for a viable replacement and come up short. There are worse things than a cautious chancellor.
His internal critics wanted a spectacular Budget that would neuter the opposition Labour party’s appeal to young voters, fix ingrained problems of technical skill-lessness and ensure that Britain came steaming out of the EU with a half-Singaporean, half-German economy circa 2019. How a party with the name Conservative came to endow the state with such heroic powers of national transformation is a puzzle for intellectual historians to examine. Mere political observers would just say that a Year Zero Budget was never in Mr Hammond’s nature. The one he summoned on Wednesday, limited and self-preserving as it was, can be excused in the circumstances.
The best guess is that Mr Hammond’s enemies will lay off him for the rest of the year and regroup at his next crisis. The nature of that crisis is hard to predict but his Budget said little about public sector pay, and rearranged the benefits system rather than making it any more generous. These are among the likeliest sources of political trouble next year. Like Theresa May, the prime minister, with whom he has a strained relationship despite certain unities of age and character, he lives a hand-to-mouth existence. Each day of survival is an achievement.
In these circumstances, great national plans are impossible. Their enemies put Mrs May and Mr Hammond under ferocious short-term duress and then wonder at their lack of long-term vision. They expect them to write a symphony in the middle of a cage fight. People of such determined unreasonableness can be fended off by a clever, conciliatory Budget, but not for long.
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