World Budget Day

On World Book Day, Jeremy Hunt tried and failed to dress up as Nigel Lawson

Artillery Row

World Book Day, and breakfast television was full of adorable tykes dressing up as fictional characters. Here was Jeremy, dressed in a suit and tie, just like his hero, tax-cutting Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson. It was just pretend, of course, because Jeremy is putting taxes up!

And here was Rachel. It wasn’t clear whom she’d come as. Perhaps her parents had forgotten until the morning, and then, panicking, dressed her up in a smart jacket and said: “If anyone asks, you’re Miss Trunchbull. Or Dana Scully.” 

There was a bit of storytelling in the locations, too. Hunt had gone to a pharmaceutical factory near Liverpool, to remind us of the vaccines triumph days when the Tories were miles ahead in the polls. Behind him, men and women in labcoats beavered away over instruments so sensitive that they can still detect Rishi Sunak’s approval rating. Reeves had gone to a building site next to St Paul’s Cathedral in the City, to symbolise both construction engineering (the sort of thing we like to believe we do as a nation) and financial engineering — the sort of thing we actually do. 

There was a similar gap between dreams and reality on some of Thursday’s front pages, where sympathetic papers had chosen to go hard not so much on anything the Chancellor actually did in his Budget, but on what he said he’d like to do one day: abolish National Insurance. It’s probably a bad sign if your supporters are having to pretend your best line is an aspiration to try something at some point after an election you’re on course to lose.

In any case, it didn’t even last until 7am. “That’s a huge job,” Hunt conceded to Times Radio at the start of his round of broadcast interviews. “I don’t think it’s realistic to say that it’s going to happen any time soon.” Later his spin doctors would ring round insisting it remained a “long-term ambition”. Well, sure. I have a long-term ambition to write a best-selling thriller about a parliamentary sketchwriter who’s also a secret agent, played in the movie by a thirtysomething Harrison Ford. I wouldn’t want anyone putting it on the front page of their paper, though.

Perhaps Hunt had simply panicked. The thing about being Chancellor is that your public appearances are very limited, and generally tightly controlled. Most of what you say in public is drafted for you in advance by — how shall we put this? — people who understand all those graphs and numbers. When you’re in Parliament, there are other ministers alongside you. But the morning after the Budget, you’re out there on your own, facing whatever BBC Breakfast throw at you. 

Hunt approaches these events very visibly terrified. A rigidly fixed smile is interrupted by nervous gulps, frightened widening of the eyes, and anxious laughs. It’s the opposite of reassuring. If he were a doctor preparing to operate on you, you’d decide to take your chances with the blocked heart valve. 

It’s unfortunate then that he had decided his message was Steady Hand On The Tiller. “I don’t think people want gimmicks,” he told each interviewer in turn, in a sign that he’s also been protected from meetings with backbench Tories. 

The BBC put it to him that taxes were, despite his claims, rising

The BBC put it to him that taxes were, despite his claims, rising. He glanced anxiously off camera, and told us we had to “stick with a plan that’s working.” But, insisted the host, someone earning £15,000 a year was worse off under this Budget. Hunt blinked, his eyelids sending a distress signal that couldn’t have been clearer if it had been in Morse. “You’re taking one figure in isolation,” he pleaded. “I don’t know whether that figure is true or not. It doesn’t sound right.” 

On the subject of things that don’t sound right, he was asked about the decision that taxpayers should stump up for Michelle Donelan’s libel damages payout, on the grounds that she defamed an academic in her official capacity as a Cabinet minister. Had he signed this off? Hunt licked his lips. “I don’t think I did,” he said, elbowing his colleague out of the airlock in an effort to save himself. 

Over on Good Morning Britain, Reeves was less nervous, confident that she can take Richard Madeley on economic questions any day of the week. “If there’s one thing people know about me,” she told him, although I would bet this year’s tax rise that there isn’t, in fact, one thing that anyone knows about her, “it’s that I’m utterly committed to fiscal responsibility.” 

I mean, I would have gone for the copying her book off Wikipedia thing myself, but that’s the joy of World Book Day: you can be whoever you want to be, so long as you can find a costume.

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