Betting the House on the Budget

The last few days before what has been dubbed the ‘make or break’ Budget have not played out as Philip Hammond would have hoped. What the Chancellor would probably describe as a selective misinterpretation of his remarks on unemployment on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show have fed into the long-running media narrative that he is fighting for his job. There was a broadside from the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, who claimed at the weekend that Mr Hammond had no ‘burning desire to change people’s lives’. A photo opportunity with a driverless car had to be cancelled at the last minute when it was realised what a gift this would be to satirists. All of this is set against a backdrop of Leaver MPs and press baying for his blood, and Cabinet colleagues angling for his Treasury job in a pre-Christmas reshuffle. The irony that the Chancellor is, in effect, being asked to shore up Mrs May so that she recovers enough authority to sack him has not been lost on political commentators.

None of this is likely to have much impact on what Mr Hammond will say on Wednesday. He is not one to be readily buffeted by press speculation and has always favoured the enablement of a longer-term economic transformation over short-term political considerations. While he may lack the rhetorical fireworks of a Michael Gove or a Boris Johnson, he is a conviction politician – albeit one who is perhaps more comfortable framing arguments in economic rather than human terms. While he appears to have yielded to shorter-term considerations where the public sector pay cap is concerned, the trailed announcements on housing and investment in new technologies bear testimony to this focus on longer term planning and a ‘steady as she goes’ approach. Given the fiscal constraints he faces, he has few other options.

On a personal level, however, there are signs the Chancellor  – at the eleventh hour, some might say –  is looking to shake off his ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ image and portray himself as a more rounded personality. Journalist Tim Shipman noted, after a recent interview, that it was the first time he had heard Mr Hammond mention his children in ten years of acquaintance. It is probably unlikely that we will see anything resembling the string of jokes Mr Hammond reeled off during his first Budget speech, but what we may see is a toning down of the technical language he has previously favoured in favour of more inclusive style.

That is not to say that ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ has disappeared entirely. The Budget ‘scorecard’ summarising each Budget measure and its price tag, which was first brought to public attention by former Gordon Brown adviser Damian McBride, remains a staple of the Chancellor’s Budget preparations. Mr Hammond, who will almost certainly have memorised every last detail of that spreadsheet, is known not to suffer fools gladly and any civil servant or adviser not on top of their brief will be given very short shrift as the final hours before the Budget statement tick away.

This Budget also marks the first major test for Mr Hammond’s re-formed Special Adviser team. Chief Economic Adviser Karen Ward, Communications Adviser Hayden Allan, and Policy Adviser Graham Hook all departed in the wake of June’s General Election, with the steady and well-liked Duncan McCourt now Mr Hammond’s longest-serving political aide. In particular the new Chief Economic Adviser Steffan Ball, political press spokesman Poppy Trowbridge, and another recent hire, Giles Winn, a former Sky News journalist, will need to present a united front against the media onslaught that will ensue as soon as Mr Hammond resumes his seat in the Chamber. The first few hours after the Budget statement will be vital as the advisor team seek to re-shape the media narrative and thus protect their boss’s job and reputation.

And if the ‘car crash’ Budget that many commentators predict comes to pass? Mr Hammond has already demonstrated an enviable resistance to political bullets. He deftly avoided the sack in the post-Election reshuffle, and it would not be out of the question – given Theresa May’s weakened position and an absence of credible alternative candidates – for him to do so again. But his is a pragmatic personality. He may love his job, but he is far-sighted enough not to take it for granted. Whatever happens to him in the weeks ahead, the man who started his business career selling second-hand cars as a teenager is unlikely to sit still for long.

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