The Thunderbird is go...
The chancellor’s style is that of a puppet controlled by a puppeteer desperately trying not to fall asleep on the job
The chancellor had already let slip his big Budget announcement the night before, namely the extension of governmentsubsidised childcare. So it can only be to demonstrate the scale of the current crisis that, on the biggest day of his professional life thus far, Jeremy Hunt had to bring his own children in to
work with him, and left them in the peers’ gallery of the House of Commons.
When Mum nipped out briefly, the closest adult to hand was Lee Anderson MP. In professional childcare terms, that’s a ratio of three to one. Twitter users will know that Mr Anderson has certainly coped with larger. Still, that’s one way to get around the teachers’ strike. Albeit not one that’s much use should your place of work not have its own public gallery.
Jeremy Hunt has been wafting around the top tier of British politics for such an inordinately long time it’s possible to forget this was his first moment in the absolute big time. It wasn’t sufficient to cause any great modulation in his trademark style, which is that of a Thunderbird puppet, controlled by a puppeteer desperately trying not to fall asleep. He had, for reasons known only to him, decided to resurrect his “four Es”, which he was bold enough to claim that “people will remember from my Bloomberg speech”.
Even I don’t remember the four Es from his Bloomberg speech, and I think I might have been there but I really can’t recall. He dropped his four Es – everywhere, enterprise, employment and education – one after the other, but the mood was very much all come down. Some things really had come down, quite literally, namely the growth forecast, which is now lower than it was in November, and it wasn’t especially high then.
So had the inflation forecast, too, in fairness, a mere 2.9 per cent by the end of the year. And for this, the government deserves credit. Three months ago, people were wondering how to cope with soaring food prices. Now there’s simply none for them to buy at all. Problem solved.
It seems several lifetimes ago, but Hunt was first brought in to the treasury by Liz Truss, who has since explained that she had no choice but to sack Kwasi Kwarteng even though she agreed with everything he’d done, but someone had to go in order to reassure the markets that she wasn’t completely mad. And it couldn’t be her, because that would be mad. So Kwarteng went. For some reason, it didn’t work.
Hunt’s role back then was to reassure, to bore, to exude an aura of calm, even as his first task in the job was to call the TV cameras into his office in the Treasury and tell people not to worry, which is the kind of thing revolutionary Marxists used to do in Latin America, often without having quite the desired effect.
Hunt ploughed on. Some of his hour-long speech was analysis, some of it was the announcement of policy. Some of it, theoretically, was an attempt at humour, but it was not easy to work out which was which. It’s not just the arms, the legs and the shoulders that look like they’ve walked straight out of Gerry Anderson’s studio. It’s the face as well. The lips move, the sound comes out, but he could frankly be saying absolutely anything. The technology just isn’t sophisticated enough for actual emotion.
The funniest bit, and by a considerable margin, came right at the start, when he announced a £63m fund to deal with the threat to “community facilities, especially swimming pools”. We can only conclude that Mr Hunt has been preparing his Budget inside some kind of internet-free bunker, and so hadn’t seen the rather embarrassing story from the weekend, concerning Rishi Sunak personally paying for upgrade works to the National Grid
It is an especially beautiful form of torture, to be accidentally publicly humiliated, all the while knowing your face is going to be there in the background on live TV for 60 unforgiving minutes
so that it can meet the needs of his new private swimming pool at his constituency mansion in Yorkshire.
Sunak, not being a Thunderbird, is capable of revealing his feelings. And at this point, it became immediately clear to him that his day had been ruined and would stay ruined. His face turned instantly into a mask of humiliation that he didn’t quite manage to remove for almost a full hour. It is an especially beautiful form of torture, to be accidentally publicly humiliated, all the while knowing that your face is going to be there in the background on live television for 60 long, unforgiving minutes to come.
This, by the way, was before the four Es had even begun. Almost a quarter of a century ago, the satirist Chris Morris tricked the late David Amess MP into raising in the House of Commons the scourge of “cake”, an entirely fictional recreational drug, one of whose effects was to stimulate “Shatner’s bassoon”, the part of the brain that controls time perception. On cake, a second can feel like a month. Hunt’s four E’s work in much the same way.
The groans when he announced he still had two Es to go were so loud he had no choice but to laugh along with them. He had three big announcements to make. One was the introduction of “full capital expensing.” This means that any business that spends any money on new equipment, or indeed anything it might need, can write the full amount off against profits straight away. Look, I’m not a businessman, but if I was, I can’t pretend that “full capital expensing” wouldn’t sound to me a lot like “massive fraud opportunity”, an area of business expertise that this government knows about a lot more than most.
Another one was the scrapping of the cap on lifetime pensions allowance. It’s complex stuff, this, but Jeremy Hunt didn’t make an attempt to disguise that its main purpose is to incentivise middle-aged doctors into not taking early retirement. The head of the IFS, Paul Johnson, has described this policy as using “a very large sledgehammer to crack an especially small nut.” Mr Johnson is not a great one for hyperbole. That he chose to stress the largeness of the sledgehammer and the smallness of the nut
– as if the analogy was not sufficient on its own – is more than a little bit damning.
This was all part of a plan to incentivise people in their fifties to carry on working, not least as Hunt, 56, is going to have to work very hard over the next year or so just to fend off voter-induced early retirement himself. When Budgets are finished, spokespeople for the chancellor gather in a little anteroom outside the House of Commons to be interrogated by Westminster journalists. It is safe to say that most of this particular post-Budget briefing was spent denying that this was their “45p tax moment”. That it was, in other words, a de facto tax cut for the richest people in the country, one of whom is Jeremy Hunt, and another is Rishi Sunak.
And then there was the big one. The rabbit in the hat. The extension of 30 hours free childcare. Having liberated said rabbit to the newspapers the night before, humble sketch writers were given a full day to work out their jokes on the subject. But in the end, the little childcare bunny did not quite hop hop hop as expected. What emerged had a terrible limp. Not quite roadkill but myxomatosis cannot be ruled out.
From an electoral perspective, it’s a tricky policy. It’s a maximum of 18 months or so til the election, so news that the big policy – 30 hours free childcare for one- and two-year-olds – won’t be introduced fully until September 2025 was quite surprising. It means that the children who will benefit most from it will not even be conceived until after the general election, some of them, quite possibly, in an act of celebration at the downfall of the government that came up with it.
It’s a lot to gamble on. Polling consistently indicates that there are currently about 30 people in the entire country aged under 35 who might vote Tory, quite possibly all of whom are Tory MPs, but at least they have a new strategy: invest in the not yet born... get the babies onside.
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