You need charisma to pull off a good con trick. To lull your audience into suspending disbelief. A sleight of hand that makes everyone look elsewhere while the economy stalls and the country suffers its worst fall in living standards since records began.
And Jeremy Hunt has no presence. More an absence. A vacuum where personality is normally found. So for an hour he died on his feet at the dispatch box. Luckily, he didn’t seem to know a thing about it.
Hunt’s wife and children were in the visitors’ gallery being minded by MP Lee Anderson for the chancellor’s first budget since his emergency financial statement last November. Let’s hope they aren’t scarred for life.
That previous emergency budget had been to unspook the markets after Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s emergency budget a month or so previously. It’s getting hard to keep track. The Tories have been playing catchup for a while.
Hunt got to his feet just after prime minister’s questions. From the off, it seemed touch and go whether he was going to make it to the end. His voice felt thin. Frail, even.
Rishi Sunak and his colleagues on the frontbench grimaced. Willing him to make it through. To not fuck up and let them down. The backbenchers talked among themselves or closed their eyes and dozed. It’s possible they might have been thinking. Though that would be a first for some.
There were enormous challenges to the economy, Hunt began. Yes, and most of them had been self-inflicted by the Tory party. It wasn’t the rest of us who tanked the economy with unfunded tax cuts. Though we have been picking up the tab.
But Jezza didn’t want to talk about Kamikwasi. He wanted to talk about how we’ve never had it so good. How only a Tory government could clear up a Tory mess. Inflation would more than halve by the end of the year. But not because of anything he had done. You or I could have managed that.
We didn’t know how lucky we were to have him as chancellor. And not just as a cure for insomnia. He was a man who could be trusted to make the big calls on swimming pools. He was all for them.
For some reason, Sunak’s face turned to thunder. He doesn’t like to be reminded of how much he spent on his own indoor pool. Or how much it cost to have the whole Yorkshire electricity grid upgraded to heat the thing. After all, Rish! is a billionaire of the people. He feels our pain. Pools are a great deal cheaper at his other house in California.
Moving on. There would be a Brexit bonus. Pubs in Northern Ireland would be free not to pass on the cuts in beer duty to their customers just as they could in the rest of the UK. There were other Brexit gains he didn’t bother to mention. That trade would be hit by 15% because of Brexit. That we were only avoiding recession because migration had risen to 245,000 a year. Suella Braverman will be horrified when she finds out. She’s yet to find a foreigner she didn’t want to deport. Then there were a lot of things that Hunt chose not to say. Like why there was money for tax breaks but not for public sector workers’ pay.
For a brief moment, it felt possible Hunt might redeem himself by making one of the shorter budget statements on record. A relief for him and us. But it became apparent he was just getting into his stride.
“I have four Es,” he said. Only he didn’t. They at least are supposed to make you feel good. This speech was one long downer. Maybe we had misheard. Maybe it was four Vs. Four Valium. That would at least explain why everyone seemed so heavily sedated.
But no. E it was. Education, Employment, Enterprise and Everywhere. Everywhere? If you have to include something as random as Everywhere you’d probably have been better off taking one less E.
Still, what it seemed to mean was that he wanted to turn some places into the new Canary Wharf. He had been going to say Silicon Valley but had thought better of it after the bank had gone belly up earlier in the week.
“This is levelling up,” he said hopefully. No one sounded that enthusiastic. Especially not Michael Gove. He hadn’t bothered to show up. The country could get on with levelling up without him.
For my next E … There was an audible groan from both sides of the chamber. Everyone had been hoping he would just cut his losses. But Jezza doesn’t have the self-awareness to read the room. So he piled on. No backing down from raising corporation tax back to 25%.
The free-market Tories looked horrified. Truss and Kwarteng were nowhere to be seen but the loyal outrider, Simon Clarke, was standing balefully near the far end to report back. In his parallel world, Kamikwasi may still believe he is chancellor. He hasn’t yet told his family he’s sacked. He travels the Jubilee line every day like the Flying Dutchman. So this budget will come as a surprise to them.
Most measures had already been leaked, so there were few surprises and the speech became an endurance test. The only gags were more or less unintentional. The SNP notably perked up when Hunt said independence was better than dependence.
And Jezza also managed to insult the deputy speaker by mentioning Eleanor Laing’s age. That didn’t go down well with anyone in the chamber. There was an awkward, embarrassing pause. Small talk isn’t Hunt’s strong point. Then neither is any talk.
The only reveal was a lifting of the pension limit. Great. A huge tax break for the super-rich. Men and women who simply can’t get by without more state aid. Rish! immediately reached for his phone to tell his accountant to increase his contributions. At last he stood a chance of being able to afford his retirement.
Hunt didn’t seem bothered that he had just given away the best part of £1bn to persuade a few doctors to carry on working. Pour encourager les autres. And it would be far too much work to ringfence the break for just a few hospital consultants.
There were few cheers when Jezza finally reached the end. And they were mostly of relief. Either that or a weird Pavlovian response. A buried instinct. Hunt looked somewhat disoriented. But well he might.
The pension tax break apart, it had been a budget that Labour might have delivered if it had wanted to lose an election. If it had been out of its depth and was trying to tread water. The budget of a government that was out of time. Out of ideas. Even the childcare plans would not be introduced until after the next election. So Labour would pick up the tab.
Even before Keir Starmer got up to make his reply, the Tory benches began to empty. They couldn’t bear to hear some home truths. Time to eat, drink and be merry. For tomorrow we die. This was the End. Beautiful Friend. The End.