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Nobody was expecting all those jokes. For a chancellor forced to deliver a tight Budget in grim times, Philip Hammond seemed almost jocular. He teased the prime minister about bringing some cough sweets – which she duly passed forward to him. Talking about electric cars, he made a groan-worthy gag about this not being the first time Hammond and May had stuck it to television presenter Jeremy Clarkson. He even found time, while talking about tax on whisky, to exclaim: “Merry Christmas, Mr Deputy Speaker!”
Very perky. There was no getting around the big bit of bad news, though. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s growth forecasts are what even Mr Hammond calls “disappointing”. But there was a way of cushioning it, and the chancellor did his best.
He started with a good deal of pleasing, meaningless mood music, scattering epithets like “hub”, “dream”, “beacon”, “outward-looking”, “force for good in the world”, “a Britain we can be proud of”. He sought to give his managerialist accounting a visionary spin by claiming: “This is not just an economic plan. It is a key part of our vision for a fairer Britain.”
Above all he used language that sought to connote not a government knocked on its backside by the winds of the global economy and the earthquake of Brexit, but one of grit and determination — the captain of its fate. Here we got “our resolve”, “embrace the future”, “meet challenges head-on”, “stand ready”, “determined”, “we have no doubt”, “I have a clear vision”.
“We choose the future,” he said. “We choose to run towards change…” — attempting to cast the government as an active agent in its situation, rather than a rudderless vessel at the mercy of wind and sea. Remainer or no, it looks weak to acknowledge that change might have been thrust upon you.
What some would see as a Hobson’s choice — between the irreconcilable problems of there being no money and needing to spend some — he instead glossed as a “balanced approach” (using the phrase more than once).
He addressed the OBR’s stinky forecast very near the beginning of his speech — presumably in the twin hopes that during the half-hour or more that followed, its doomy vibes would be forgotten; and that he could use it as cover for the less popular measures he went on to propose. He presaged it with: “This is the bit with the long economicky words in it.” That was a little babyish, perhaps, but it had two functions. One was to position Mr Hammond on the side of the plain, folksy person who doesn’t know much about post neo-endogenous growth theory but knows what he likes. The second was to signal that what came next would be boring and hard to understand, so perhaps a good time for viewers to leave the room to make a cup of tea.
Delivering a Budget speech, a chancellor gets to duck and dive a little. Boring lists of decimal-pointed statistics can help to camouflage bad news (and this was a pretty dull Budget, deliberately so). But the good news can be cherry-picked and made relatable with simple comparatives and superlatives. So we heard that fuel duty “has now been frozen for the longest period in 40 years”, that we’d be seeing the “biggest annual increase in housing supply since 1970”, that “income inequality is at its lowest level in 30 years”. He even threw in a reference to the BBC wildlife series Blue Planet II for the groundlings.
A Budget speech is a tricky row to hoe, rhetorically. You want to square the circle of making complex and speculative maths add up – while reducing those complexities to headline-friendly figures. Nobody’s going to be talking detail about supply chains and bond yields in the popular papers. They’re going to be talking about “hardworking families” having an extra fiver, or suffering a “hole in the wallet”, as the case may be.
Essentially, you’re trying to do complicated economics and simple public relations at the same time. And Mr Hammond, as most commentators have pointed out, is even more than usually constrained by circumstance. The fruit machine of the economy has not been showering his ankles with 10p pieces for him to give away splashily. His government has no political leeway. And the OBR is painting a grim picture of the future.
Given that, the best Mr Hammond could have hoped for was to project a vague air of knowing what he is doing and avoid stepping on any landmines. This he did about as well as anyone could have expected him to.
Sam Leith is the author of ‘Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page’ (Profile).