PHILIP HAMMOND’S address to the House of Commons was less a Budget speech than a PR exercise to try to improve the Tories’ image without spending too much.
To this end he addressed problems highlighted by the parliamentary opposition or charities engaged in softening the blow of his government’s austerity offensive, made sympathetic noises and doled out amounts too pitiful to meet acute needs.
On some issues, the Chancellor simply put his hands up, admitted the Tories were bang to rights and “borrowed” a policy from Labour’s election manifesto.
His back-bench MPs were under instructions to roar their appreciation and laugh at his “jokes,” even though everyone, including Hammond, knows that he remains just one cock-up away from the sack.
They cheered each inadequate proposal as though it were brimming with substance and heckled Jeremy Corbyn’s response to prevent it being heard.
Their efforts could not alter the fact that the Budget was a damp squib that will benefit business profits to an extent while leaving workers’ pay in the deep freeze.
Most remarkably, the Chancellor missed the chance to deal with key issues such as housing, social care and public-sector pay because he is constrained by the government’s dogged addiction to the capitalist austerity agenda first imposed by his sacked predecessor George Osborne.
As Corbyn pointed out, the original “all in it together” justification for government spending cuts and a public-sector pay freeze was that this would enable the deficit to be cleared by 2015.
This was changed to 2016, then 2017, 2020 and is now floated as around 2025, making a mockery of Osborne’s pretensions and indicating that his replacement is cut from the same tatty cloth.
At least seven years of pay restraint has hit public-sector workers and their families hard over this period.
Rather than help millions out of their predicament, Hammond prefers to divide and rule, making some cash available to the police, prison and health services while ignoring the case for education, social care and other essential sectors.
The Chancellor has been assailed by critics on all sides of the House, together with public representations over concerns about universal credit, but has failed to take the necessary measures to get it right.
He refuses to pause the roll-out of this flawed scheme, preferring to merely cut the waiting period from six weeks to five, to pay benefit from day one rather than make claimants suffer a qualification week and to extend advance payments.
Claimants will welcome these changes long demanded by campaigners on the basis that every little helps, but they are pretty small beer.
Hammond has clearly decided that solving the problem of mass homelessness is too difficult to deal with, so he has opted for gimmicks such as doing away with stamp duty, which, in the absence of concrete proposals to build affordable local authority homes to rent — as even his colleague Communities Secretary Sajid Javid had proposed — can only be expected to push prices up.
For all the forecasts and inspired leaks that the Chancellor was about to put forward a revolutionary, transformative Budget, we are faced with same old, same old.
One-sixth of all pensioners live in poverty today, with a virtual guarantee of seeing that proportion rise as the incomes of workers and claimants lose value, making it all but impossible to prepare for life after retirement.
This government is beyond redemption. It should go — and go now.