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“I don’t think it’s going to be an all glitzy, big bang sexy Budget,” Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, had ventured to predict.
Houchen was right. Jeremy Hunt delivered a sombre performance which somehow became more sombre as he went on, his voice fading as he recited lines which gave unintended comfort to the Opposition.
On Budget day, the Prime Minister acts as warm-up man for the Chancellor. At PMQs Rishi Sunak adopted his favourite persona of endlessly helpful van driver “delivering for the British people”, making sure none of his packages go astray, always ready with a cheerful word for whoever opens the door.
“That is what delivery for the British people looks like!” Sunak resumed with a smile, for once you have discovered a patter that suits you, why change it?
But the man on whom the heavy responsibility of delivery now lay was the Chancellor. He knew exactly what goods he had to get through to the nation’s households: “In November we delivered stability. Today it’s growth.”
Growth is one of those perishable commodities which does not always survive contact with the markets, which were indeed reported to be tumbling before the Chancellor had spoken a word.
Last September, HM Treasury published a growth plan which perished within days, as did, soon after, the start-up firm which had produced it, Truss & Kwarteng.
So perhaps it is a good thing that Hunt lacks Kwasi Kwarteng’s brio. The Chancellor sounded almost melancholy as he said that “in the face of enormous challenges” (ominous word, “challenges” being used by our political class as a euphemism for “problems”) he could report today “on a British economy which is proving the doubters wrong”.
Up in the gallery sat three firm believers in Hunt, his wife and in school uniform their two children, looking wonderfully animated as their father starred in today’s political theatre.
He performed with exemplary conscientiousness, yet could not quite convey the feeling that he was at ease with the role he had been given. Some of his lines were fearfully dull: “We are following the plan and the plan is working.”
He went on to offer “prosperity with a purpose”, which carried an echo of Gordon Brown’s “prudence with a purpose”. Could it be that the Treasury speech-writers recycle this stuff, shoving in whatever words the present Chancellor happens to like?
The speech seemed, certainly, to have been written by someone with no sense of the ludicrous. Hunt came to an unfortunate passage about “the risk to swimming pools”, which produced hilarity on the Opposition benches, for the instalment of new electricity cables in order to heat the PM’s private pool at his house in North Yorkshire has just been in the news.
The same tin ear was in evidence as the Chancellor promoted his four “E”s, Enterprise, Education, Employment and Everywhere – the last of these used repeatedly in recent months by Hunt, but still sounding absurd.
“Conservatives believe work is a virtue,” he added, producing in some of us dreams of virtuous leisure.
“Independence is always better than dependence,” Hunt declared, which prompted cheers from the Scots Nats.
He make a joke about having started, in his mid-fifties, “a new career in finance”.
“How’s it going?” some wag shouted.
“It’s going well, thank you,” the Chancellor replied.
In his peroration, he roused himself to declare that “the declinists are wrong and the optimists are right”. These are dark days for Tory pessimists.
After Hunt sat down, he looked flushed and relieved, laughing as Sunak muttered jokes in his ear while Sir Keir Starmer said he looked forward to the PM promoting the swimming pool policy: “unlike the car he won’t have to borrow one of those”.
Perhaps Sunak & Hunt, Delivery Specialists, will in the next year and a half bring to the nation’s door just what we want, and thereby avert a takeover by the rival firm of Starmer & Reeves.
But over this speech hung a sense that the Chancellor was with impeccable dutifulness making the best of a bad job.