Phillip Hammond did not have the look of a Chancellor with his job on the line. He has developed a breezy budget schtick peppered with jokes (some actually good) and asides. He commands the House confidently, and for this Budget broadened his rhetorical range, indulging in a high-blown passage about the government “running towards change”, an image I am trying not to take too literally.
In most circumstances, it is a good thing to have a Chancellor that is unflappable. Right at the moment, though, most Tory MPs think there is quite a lot to flap about, and there is a fine line between confidence and what might be perceived as complacency. In short, the Tories wanted action, not gags, and the success of the Budget will be measured by that yardstick.
The bulk of the action was on housing. Abolishing stamp duty for most first-time buyers is the one stand-out measure (and the only real headline-grabber.) Already economists are looking at a potential inflationary impact on the housing market which might mute the intended effect. There is an awful lot of money aimed at building more homes. This is designed as a “message to the younger generation” by the Chancellor, though it is doubtful the millions of young people who voted Labour were crying out for an “urgent review” into land-banking chaired by Oliver Letwin.
The Chancellor was absolutely right to point out that housing supply is an area in which successive governments have failed. Against that backdrop, people are entitled to be sceptical, but at least they know that the issue is top priority for the Prime Minister and Chancellor, and being championed by an energetic Secretary of State in Sajid Javid.
Elsewhere, there was a lot of money spent despite the fact that grim productivity figures limited the Chancellor’s room for manoeuvre. £3billion set aside for Brexit preparation, an additional £2.8billion in resource funding for the NHS, millions for tech companies and electric vehicle infrastructure, £1.7billion for “transforming cities”, most of which will be allocated to metro-mayors…
Coupled with uprating the personal allowance and the national living wage, tweaks to business rates to help small businesses and a substantial package to try to improve the implementation of Universal Credit, this was a real giveaway from Phillip Hammond. If the OBR’s gloomy growth projections are right, the government will only have the opportunity to splash some cash once in this parliament, and this was it. Framing the next Budget will consequently be much tougher for Phillip Hammond or whoever succeeds him.