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With promises to end austerity, will the Budget be Theresa May’s reckoning?

The papers are distracted by her dancing, but the Prime Minister’s Waterloo is yet to come.

By Stephen Bush

Gimme gimme gimme! That’s what Theresa May will have said when this morning’s newspapers were brought into Downing Street. A combination of her pledge to end austerity and her decision to dad-dance her way on to the tune of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” has the papers purring.

“Dancing to a new beat – May pledges end to austerity” is the Telegraph’s splash. “Mama May-a!” croons the Mail. “PM moves to end austerity” is the i’s angle. “Back me on Brexit and I will end decade of austerity, pledges May” is the Guardian’s take. “May moves to end austerity” says the Times. “May vows to end austerity if Tories unite over Brexit” is the FT’s disappointingly Abba and/or dance-riff-free frontpage.

The post-match analysis is focussing on two things (other than the dancing): the PM’s decision not to use the word “Chequers”, and her supposed move back to the centre ground. On the former, I think the non-presence of the C-Word in the speech is the subject of more analysis than it can really bear. The speech wasn’t just targeted at Conservative Party activists in the hall but at people in the country seeing clips of the speech on the six o’clock news and on the top of the hour on music radio. To most people, Chequers is a board game, not a Brexit proposal.

What about that return to the centre ground? The speech was certainly delivered in the values space we know feels least well-served by the current leadership of both parties: that left-authoritarian bloc that Theresa May gravitates most easily to in speeches. The problem is that she very rarely ends up their policy terms, though her pledge to let local authorities borrow to build is big news and the first genuine attempt to match Tory policy to Mayite rhetoric.

But the real proof of the pudding will come in the Budget on 29 October. There’s not a lot of good news left for Philip Hammond to announce and it’s not clear how he can match the rhetoric on offer from May without either significant tax rises or further borrowing. The Budget could yet be May’s Waterloo.

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