Vanishing act

Jeremy Hunt did not, in fact, pull a rabbit out of his hat

Artillery Row

Was that it? Jeremy Hunt’s Budget — like every Budget — had one surprise saved for the end, one final rabbit out of the hat. As he raced towards the close of his speech, we wondered what he might have saved up to delight the Conservative benches behind him. Some crowd-pleasing tax cut or spending pledge perhaps? Instead, we — and they — realised that he was on the final page, that there wouldn’t be one. The surprise was … there was no surprise!

Hunt’s appointment was the summit of a career in which he has risen through plausible inoffensiveness

We would learn afterwards that, as the Budget was prepared, Rishi Sunak had recused himself from discussions about tax changes that would affect his wife. But it seems possible the entire Conservative Party insisted on leaving the room whenever there were discussions about anything that might help in the coming election.

At one level, it was admirable: Budget statements are a terrible way of managing the public finances. The last thing politicians need is more incentives to make grand eye-catching announcements. So we should applaud Hunt for having the courage to resist the temptation to announce a vast range of goodies for the electorate.

And yet. However much, at an intellectual level, we might applaud the decision to deliver a Budget statement that contained no announcements obviously aimed at shifting the polling dial by even a single percentage point, it did feel slightly like arriving at a prize fight only to learn that Tyson Fury had decided that violence wasn’t the way to solve problems.

It’s worth remembering how Hunt came to be Chancellor. He was appointed by Liz Truss not because of any special genius, but because she’d fired Kwasi Kwarteng and urgently needed to replace him with someone who wasn’t an obvious lunatic. It didn’t matter whether this person had the economic or political chops, only that they — OK, let’s face it, “he” — looked like the sort of person Central Casting would send down if you asked for “generic finance minister”. Hunt’s appointment was the summit of a career in which he has risen through plausible inoffensiveness. He was, on that day, the best available bland man.

On Wednesday, as his statement went on, the best you could say about Tory MPs was that they were trying to look polite. Not all of them, of course. John Redwood sat in a far corner on the opposition side of the chamber, almost next to John McDonnell. Both men are in the outer darkness of their parties, for opposite but matching reasons. When Herbert Morrison died in 1965, he was found to have been carrying a list of his eight favourite records in his wallet, in case Desert Island Discs called him at short notice. Surely the Redwood wallet contains at least one draft Budget speech.

As Hunt went on, Redwood looked increasingly baleful. Occasionally he would scribble something. Was he making notes, or does he write his tweets out by hand, before passing them to a minion to be sent out into the ether?

On the Labour benches, though, there was delight, almost from the word go. Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing, in the chair by tradition, had to rise several times to silence them. “The Chancellor has hardly said anything!” she scolded them. “I know!” shouted back a Labour frontbencher, possibly Angela Rayner.

I’m not sure I’ve heard heckling like it during a Budget. Peter Kyle had positioned himself sitting on the steps in the middle of the opposition benches, out of Laing’s eyeline but in Hunt’s. He kept the sledging up throughout. “Good public services need …” Hunt began, and Kyle shouted “…a Labour government.” His colleagues cheered.

If a mysterious assailant flushes Hunt’s head down the bog later, Rayner had better have a cast iron alibi

Others didn’t even bother to hide. “One of my biggest privileges,” Hunt said, “was to be Health Secretary.” “How did it go?” yelled Wes Streeting, inches from Laing. He was told off, sort of. “You are too close to me to be shouting that loudly,” the Deputy Speaker said. “If you want to shout that loudly, you should go away and sit up there.” As bollockings go, it was half-hearted.

Hunt tried to give it back, but he doesn’t really have it in him. About the only time he riled Labour was when he made a joke about multiple dwellings relief and tried to link it to Rayner, who has faced questions over a house she sold after she married. The Labour deputy leader was fuming, pointing at the Chancellor and then towards the door in a way that suggested she’d like to take things outside. If a mysterious assailant flushes Hunt’s head down the bog later, Rayner had better have a cast iron alibi.

The clever bit of the Budget is apparently the decision to adopt Labour’s plan to tax wealthy “non dom” foreigners. It may be that in the long term this creates problems for the Opposition, but on Wednesday afternoon they greeted the announcement with hilarity. “More!” they shouted, ironically, while party whip Mark Tami waved his arms at the stony faced Tories, urging them to cheer their Chancellor on. “This is impossible!” Laing complained. “Yes it is!” yelled a Labour wag.

The Tories did cheer Hunt when he finished, but it was perfunctory, rather than heartfelt. His speech was followed by some shenanigans from the SNP, who delayed Keir Starmer’s response speech for 15 minutes by forcing a vote. It will have been irritating to him, although it also gave him a few more minutes to prepare. Not that, with a surprise-free Budget, he needed it.

His theme was that voters are being asked to “pay more and more for less and less”. We’ll hear that again in the election campaign. But he had another line to wind up the Prime Minister. Two years ago, Starmer pointed out, Sunak had pledged that in 2024, income tax would fall to 19 per cent. “That promise is in tatters,” the Labour leader said.

Listening, Sunak’s head was back against the bench, his face sour. A pledge made to curry favour ahead of a leadership election had come home to roost. Perhaps he lost a fight with his Chancellor this week. Or, if you want a charitable explanation for the Budget, maybe his experience of politics in recent years has turned him against crowd-pleasing promises.

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