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22 November 2017

Whatever they promise in the Budget, the Tories are still stuck in a fiscal straitjacket

No one will thank Philip Hammond if the only news today is no news.

By Stephen Bush

The word of the day appears to be “boring”. That’s the verdict on what Philip Hammond’s budget is likely to be and certainly the pre-briefed extracts aren’t particularly exciting.

The headline measures, such as they are: the under-27 railcard will be extended to the age of 30, and schools will be paid an extra £600 for every extra pupil they persuade to take maths at A-level.

You’d think that after the last two budgets, both of which became running sores for the government, safety first wouldn’t be too bad an outcome for the Conservatives, but no one will thank Philip Hammond if the only news out of the Budget is no news.

But park the Tory psychodrama about Brexit and the threat of a Corbyn-led government and zoom out for a moment. The bigger picture isn’t Hammond’s political tin-ear, though he certainly has one of those. It’s that the Conservatives haven’t got a budget through without suffering damage since 2015, when they might have gained the first Tory majority since 1992 but they lost a healthy coalition majority of 77 to get there. 

And what the various calls from Conservative MPs and right-wing commentators on Hammond to be “bold” or “accept the benefits of Brexit” all have in common, whether consciously or unconsciously, is that they’re asking for him to spend more and borrow more while at the same time they want a budget that socks it to Labour as the party of financial irresponsibility. These aren’t demands that can be reconciled with one another.

So while the story of the Budget today may be boredom, the big story about the Conservatives is paralysis – they can’t move within the fiscal straitjacket they set themselves in 2015 and again in June, but they don’t want to follow that plan either.