There are few things which a middle-aged Englishman (we speak from personal experience) will not attempt in order to seem a more gifted and amusing figure than is actually the case.
Philip Hammond enjoyed, before this Budget, an impregnable reputation as an arid technocrat. Spreadsheet Phil, as he was known, was the man competent to understand the figures, and thus spare us the pain of having to do so for ourselves.
In a speech lasting just under an hour, he has blown this reputation to smithereens. Here was a Chancellor who for most of the time, seemed to be auditioning for a role in a Christmas pantomime instead of auditing the national accounts.
“Oh yes we will!” he declared at one point, bouncing off the protests he evoked from the Opposition. This was just after he had gestured in a mock-theatrical fashion at the Scots Nats, pretending he expected them to applaud his announcement of an increase in Scottish spending.
We have noted before Mr Hammond’s tendency to enjoy himself more than is quite seemly in a Chancellor. How he loves having this job.
He started with a reference to Norman Lamont, who 24 years ago “also presented what was billed then as ‘the last Spring Budget'”, which was described by the then Prime Minister, John Major, as the “right Budget, at the right time, from the right Chancellor”.
Cue Mr Hammond’s first joke: “Ten weeks later he was sacked, so wish me luck today.”
What a sign of confidence, one might say, to make a joke about losing one’s own job. He followed this up with a joke about Ed Balls, who lost his seat at the general election, so can no longer sit on the Opposition front bench making rude hand gestures.
George Osborne, who was the usual target of that impertinence, is still in the Commons, but was today sitting three rows behind the Chancellor. He gave an occasional pinched smile, for today’s rudeness came from his successor, whose acknowledgement of the stalwart work done in the period 2010-16 was somewhat cursory.
There came some jokes at the Opposition’s expense:
“By the way, they don’t call it the last Labour Government for nothing.”
“Driverless vehicles, a technology, Mr Speaker, I believe the party opposite knows something about.”
And also a cruel reference to Jeremy Corbyn, “now so far down a black hole that even Stephen Hawking has disowned him”.
Outside the Chamber, an argument broke out about whether Mr Hammond had disowned the 2015 Conservative manifesto by raising National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed.
That is quite a serious reform. Indeed, for many of the self-employed, it is no joke. The Chancellor sought to cover himself by remarking that he too had been self-employed once.
If the general election is really not to be held until 2020, this is the right time, politically, to inflict such pain. But should Mr Hammond have enjoyed himself quite so much as he did so?
Meanwhile the Guild of Sketchwriters, which on the subject of making jokes seeks to defend a number of restrictive practices last seen at British Leyland in the 1970s, convened an emergency meeting, at which Mr Hammond was accused, in the manner of a Japanese car manufacturer, of producing an unlimited supply of cheap and reliable jokes.
Mr Lamont was thought, wrongly, to have sung in his bath on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992. What he actually said, when asked a fortnight later at a press conference in Washington why he was so cheerful, was: “Well, it is a very beautiful morning, but it is funny you should say that. My wife said she heard me singing in the bath this morning.”
Mr Hammond today did something similar in the Commons. Perhaps he was conveying his delight that the economy is so far performing so much better than Mr Osborne predicted during the EU Referendum campaign.
But if the skies should darken in the years to come, the present Chancellor’s jokes may come to seem less funny. And in the press gallery, another term much used in the 1970s – “U-turn” – could be heard within minutes of him sitting down.