With Theresa May’s grip on Downing Street looking shakier than ever and Brexit negotiations mired in bad-tempered complexity, all eyes were on the Chancellor.
Was he capable of producing a budget free from the sort of disaster that could undermine Mrs May and derail further the UK’s less than orderly exit from the EU?
If he was feeling the pressure, Philip Hammond didn’t show it. But maybe that was because the Remainer in him wouldn’t mind a bit of bungled Brexit.Sounding assured, the Chancellor spoke with such aplomb that there must have been a few Tories wondering what a good Prime Minister he would make.
But despite reports of a rift with Mrs May over the budget’s contents, the Chancellor and Prime Minister seemed to have papered over the cracks.
Indeed, it was as if they were in cahoots when the Prime Minister appeared in on the act when he made his first joke. Referring to the coughing fit that dogged Mrs May’s speech at the Tory conference, he motioned towards a glass of water.
“I did take the precaution of asking my right honourable friend to bring a packet of cough sweets just in case,” he said. Bang on cue Mrs May produced a packet of lozenges. The next victim of Mr Hammond’s “wit” was Michael Gove, whose use of “long economicky words” at Cabinet has led to suspicions he’s after the Chancellor’s job.
“This is the bit with the long economicky words in it,” said Hammond with a glint in his eye as he unleashed some impenetrable terminology that even Mr Gove might struggle to understand. Then it was time to consult his spreadsheet. Somewhat surprisingly amongst the morass of numbers lurked some more jokes – a number of which actually raised a laugh.
Demonstrating an enviable knowledge of popular culture, Mr Hammond referred to ‘Top Gear’ and Jeremy Clarkson’s dislike of the driverless vehicles being championed by the Government.
“I know that Jeremy Clarkson doesn’t like them, but there are many good reasons to pursue this technology.... sorry Jeremy but definitely not the first time you’ve been snubbed by Hammond and May”, he said.
Attacking Labour’s economic plans, he joked that there would be “plenty of others joining Kezia Dugdale in saying ‘I’m Labour, get me out of here’.” It proved impossible to resist a dig at Scotland’s best known reality TV star.