How glum the Tories looked for most of Philip Hammond’s speech. He could not recapture the first fine careful rapture of his early appearances as Chancellor, when he was bursting with delight at having got the job.
Now he just wants to hold on to the job. And he tried to do this by pretending to be bold, while actually being cautious.
Caution is a conservative virtue. To believe one can reinvent the world every few months is a perilous illusion.
But Hammond did not get the credit for being conservative. Like an over-eager gym instructor, he kept announcing he is going to get us “fit for the future”.
We are also going “to look forward not backwards”. What is more, “we choose the future”. Indeed, “we embrace the future”.
For “we choose to run towards change, not away from it”. As if that were not enough, we are also going “to embrace change”.
The Chancellor will have to be careful, or he will find himself charged with inappropriate behaviour – inappropriate, at least, for a Conservative.
But how much change did he actually embrace? Not, so far as one could see, very much. He wants “an urgent review” into unused planning permissions, and “a dynamic new growth corridor between Oxford and Cambridge” which will deliver “up to one million homes by 2050”.
That is the language of jam tomorrow. It also implies that things are pretty bad today. There was an awkward undertone of desperation in Hammond’s performance.
He did not draw, as he might have done, an economy with deep-seated strengths on which we can build.
From time to time, he tried to lighten his technocratic language by telling jokes. That made matters worse, by introducing a matey note, as when he announced “more maths for everyone” and added, “let no one say I don’t know how to show the nation a good time”.
The Conservative benches cheered in a loyal enough way, but this was a willed loyalty which fell far short of any real pleasure in the performance.
The abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers of properties worth up to £300,000, which the Chancellor saved to the end, produced a very loud cheer.
But it was impossible to repress the thought that this eye-catching tax cut is deeply unfair on anyone who has toiled to buy a one-room flat, and now needs somewhere large enough for a family.
Jeremy Corbyn got very angry in his speech about the plight of the poor. He and John McDonnell affected to be furious with a Tory Whip, Andrew Griffiths, who was sitting on the bottom step of the gangway, next to the new Chief Whip, Julian Smith.
When Griffiths sniggered at Corbyn, it was easy enough to accuse him of sniggering at the poor. Here is the Labour narrative: that the Government is grinding the faces of the poor and favouring, in Corbyn’s words, “a super-rich elite” which is allowed to get away with “outrageous leeching”.
According to Corbyn, there is “one rule for the super-rich and another for the rest of us”, including, he implied, those who are merely rich.
It is an implausible story, but not so implausible that Corbyn is unable to believe in it. Hammond did not sound as if he believed in anything.