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Philip Hammond understands one of the core tenets of conservatism: a property-owning democracy is a necessary bulwark against socialism. In his understated Budget on Wednesday, the chancellor delivered a cornucopia of measures to tackle some of the fundamental problems in the UK’s housing market. Centrepiece of what amounts to £15bn of fresh spending was the abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers on properties under £300,000, which covers most houses outside of London. Mr Hammond also wants to end the shortage of new properties constructed.
Budgets are innately political first and economic second. Mr Hammond was targeting a constituency of young(ish) voters who abandoned the Conservatives in June’s general election for the lure of Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism. The government hopes that if it can finally edge closer to constructing its target of a quarter of a million properties each year, it can create a new generation of homeowners — just as Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s — that will return the favour by voting Tory.
The average tipping point from being a Labour voter to a Tory is age 47, so Mr Hammond has put in motion policies now that he hopes will come to fruition before the next general election is due in 2022. He is not targeting all young voters: the under-25s, who overwhelmingly split for Labour, are unlikely to be won over by the chancellor’s desire to tackle land banking or the collapse in the small- and medium-sized builders. Young professionals, who want to have a greater stake in society but are unable to, are more likely to be won over.
Given that the average age of the first-time buyer is 32 in London, and 30 elsewhere, the budget needs to appeal to those millennials in their late 20s and early 30s. The new under-30s rail card is another sweetener for those Mr Hammond wants to win over. But if the Conservatives are serious about reshaping their voting coalition from retired to working Britain, the old to the young, housing and rail cards can only be the beginning. The party has much more to do to look and sound like the whole country it represents.
Mr Hammond is a careful and cautious politician by nature and he undoubtedly had a bad hand to deal in this Budget. The growth figures are dire and over the rest of the parliament, the government will face down increasing pressure to end austerity and start spending more. The slowing economy will make it even harder for the chancellor (or his successor) to ease up on its spending constraints. For Labour, the tight fiscal situation provides more ammunition that the Conservative agenda has failed.
Recent experience shows that Budgets can unravel in the days following the set-piece announcement from the despatch box. As the details are picked over and the genuinely new is sorted from old and pre-announced, a solid parliamentary performance can turn into a political nightmare. Mr Hammond learnt this back in March with his proposed National Insurance changes which had to be quickly reversed.
At first glance, this time Mr Hammond appears to have played his hand well. The immediate reaction from Tory MPs is one of relief that nothing too risky appears to have be announced. But given the Brexit uncertainties ahead, the chancellor’s task for the near future is to provide reassurance that the Conservatives remain the most trusted party on economic competence. For Mr Hammond, the battle to win that argument is far from over.