At times, the Chancellor went so quiet that we wondered if he needed his batteries changing
March 15, 2023 3:36 pm(Updated 3:37 pm)
At the end of a Budget speech, there are a few bits of necessary procedure that the Chancellor has to perform so that the tax changes they have just announced can take effect. After Jeremy Hunt had sat down on Wednesday, someone had to nudge him to remind him to play his part. But he could be forgiven for daydreaming – the rest of us had drifted off while he was still speaking.
The day had begun with the Conservative benches of the House of Commons in party mood. Budget day is generally jolly, with the Chancellor taking the role of children’s entertainer, delivering terrible puns and pulling rabbits from his hat. So Tory MPs had got their spaces early, squeezing in to get a good view.
They may have regretted this once Hunt began to speak. They’d been promised a magician, and instead they got an earnest vicar delivering a sermon on the symbolism of clay in the Book of Jeremiah. It was probably very important, but as we went past the half-hour mark our minds had wandered.
At times Hunt went so quiet that we wondered if he needed his batteries changing. Perhaps, with electricity costing what it does, he could only afford to deliver a low-energy speech. Behind him, Conservative MPs began to whisper and play with their phones like bored choirboys. Some, nearer the doors, attempted to edge out. On the front bench, Dominic Raab rested his eyes.
Hunt is the kind of Jane Austen clergyman whose unintentional jokes are much funnier than the deliberate ones. He said he wanted to help the over-50s. “My younger officials have termed these people ‘older workers’, although as a 56-year-old myself I prefer the term ‘experienced’.” This earned him a polite titter. Then he turned to Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing, who was in the chair. “I say this not to flatter you,” he began, “but older people are…” the rest of the sentence was drowned out by MPs’ laughter as the 65-year-old Laing made it clear she was in no danger of feeling flattered.
When the Chancellor announced he wanted to help communities with the cost of heating public swimming pools, the opposition benches were so delighted that Laing had to shush them. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting waved his hands at Rishi Sunak, who has had North Yorkshire’s electricity grid rewired in order to heat his new private pool.
Treasury officials are supposed to read the speech carefully to avoid this sort of thing. We’d been told they’d removed references to Silicon Valley after the bank collapse at the weekend. A more careful editor might have predicted the reaction of the Scottish National Party to the line “independence is always better than dependence”.
But for the most part, Hunt seems to have decided to make a virtue of being boring. “Stability and sound money” are what pass for his catchphrase. Hunt and Sunak aren’t over-endowed with political strengths, but they’d both be good in the role of steady boyfriends or plausible sons-in-law. After the bombastic hectoring of Boris Johnson and the wild-eyed zealotry of Liz Truss, the Conservatives have decided to give dull a try.