“Austerity is coming to an end, but discipline will remain.” In his peroration, Philip Hammond at last gave voice for a moment to his inner martinet, and sounded as if he believed what he was saying.
The Chancellor is a bone dry believer in sound money, which can only be attained by the strict control of public spending. He is also the kind of minister who expects his orders to be obeyed, and does not brook contradiction.
And he has never been at ease giving away unnecessary information, or winning people’s trust by taking them into his confidence.
Discipline is the thing for Hammond, so the rest of his speech must have been rather painful even to himself. For it amounted to an elaborate but ultimately unconvincing attempt to show that far from being tight-fisted, he is the kind of open-handed person who loves to delight us by his generosity.
The Chancellor’s manner was that of an uncle who hands out a collection of mean Christmas presents while trying to convince the recipients that they have done frightfully well.
Hammond became jocose. He told some third-rate jokes about public conveniences, and forced his own supporters to smile, in an embarrassed way, even when they could not laugh.
But it is possible that behind this nauseating facade of the nation’s favourite uncle, Hammond had calculated quite well just how much or little he needed to give away to each of the interest groups which lobbied him for more money.
Maybe he gave about the right amount to keep the NHS on its feet, avert the total collapse of social care, soften the asperities of the welfare reforms, bail out the Ministry of Defence and humour the schools, without losing control of the nation’s finances just at the moment they seem to be coming right.
Hammond fulfilled the manifesto commitment to go on raising the income tax threshold, and sought to enlist, as his allies, the hard-working British people.
One cannot help wondering, on these occasions, what he is doing for the idle among us, but in these earnest times – perhaps at just about any time in our history – leisure understood in an Aristotelian sense, as the time needed to contemplate higher things, lacks friends in the Treasury.
The best compliment to Hammond was paid by the more serious kind of people on the Labour backbenches. My eye was caught by Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Frank Field and Mary Creagh, who were sitting in a row.
How despondent they looked. They realised the Chancellor was being sensible, and that his measures will be very hard to oppose. Around them, many of their comrades shouted derision at Hammond, and rose to applaud a protest in the public gallery.
Jeremy Corbyn began his reply by insisting that “austerity is not over.” But millions of hard-working people (oh dear, this kind of phrase is catching) think austerity was never all that austere in the first place, and that an at least modest degree of austerity simply has to be maintained, or we shall all go to hell in a handcart.
It is unfashionable to praise Hammond, and when his figures are examined, perhaps they will turn out to be full of holes, as figures so often are. But in his boring, joky way, it is also possible that he has left the Conservatives ideally placed to show they are the only grown-up party in town, and the only one which can be trusted with the public finances.