HENRY DEEDES sees the Chancellor take his budget to the House of Lords

Gordon Brown, post-budget, always looked ready for a recuperative stint at a health farm… yet somehow Jeremy Hunt appeared as fit and sprightly as a Riviera gigolo: HENRY DEEDES sees the Chancellor take his budget to the House of Lords

When Ford faced competition from exciting but unreliable foreign imports 20 years ago, the car company’s marketing men hit upon a slogan: ‘Designed for living. Engineered to last.’ The same tagline might be applied to Jeremy Hunt’s recent budget.

A week has passed since the Chancellor’s fiscal model came off the production line and into the showroom, and the consensus seems it is a fairly hefty piece of engineering — kitted out with airbags, anti-lock brakes and an array of other safety features — albeit without much under the bonnet to get excited about.

Hunt’s budget faced its final durability check yesterday in front of the House of Lords economic affairs committee. Not the most knee-knockingly fearsome prospect admittedly.

For a man who’s been burning the midnight oil these past weeks, Hunt looked irritatingly fresh. Gordon Brown post-budget always looked ready for a recuperative stint at a health farm, yet somehow Hunt appeared as fit and sprightly as a Riviera gigolo.

Henry Deedes said the Chancellor looked ‘irritatingly fresh’ after presenting the spring budget 

Accompanying the Chancellor was Dan York-Smith, the Treasury’s ‘Director General, Tax and Welfare’.

Now there’s a job title guaranteed to get dinner party guests pleading to switch seats. Also present: second permanent secretary to the Treasury, Cat Little, who spoke with an Aussie-style uplift in a language which combined long spurts of data and Whitehall gobbledygook. A lethal cocktail.

Early talk focused on tax cuts, more particularly the disappointing lack of them. Committee chairman Lord Bridges (Con) attempted to winkle out of the Chancellor when they might occur, if indeed at all. Bridges’ question was more plea than polite inquiry.

Observing Hunt being asked about tax cuts is like watching a parent react to the child in the backseat who keeps asking: ‘Are we there yet?’

One assumes at any moment he’s about to go tonto and start shouting and screaming and yanking his hair out. Instead, he looks straight ahead and offers a thin smile before eventually offering a non-committal response of ‘soon, my little treasure’.

For the umpteenth time, he repeated to the committee that his priority was to get inflation halved before the end of the year.

Lord Griffiths (Con) asked what factors kept him awake at night which might prevent him achieving that goal. Hunt looked genuinely surprised by the question.

It wasn’t clear what was more absurd — that he might lose sleep or that he might fail. The Chancellor is not without self-assurance. Former Civil Service chief Lord Turnbull (Crossbench) put it to Hunt that low taxes were now just a pipe dream.

He asked how they could ever be possible with an ageing population and an NHS gobbling up more and more money.

Hunt smiled at his lordship and simpered: ‘That’s just the sort of question a wise former Cabinet Secretary would ask.’ 

Turnbull, in return, purred like a tabby cat having its tummy tickled.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer holds the budget box on 15 March, at Downing Street

Thankfully, he disagreed with Turnbull. Hunt’s plan was to restock the Treasury’s empty coffers by turning the UK into the Silicon Valley of Europe.

Just as Nigel Lawson’s Big Bang policies allowed the City of London to become a financial powerhouse, so Hunt wanted to make Britain’s boardrooms crawl with fuzzy-faced geeks dressed in sandals and yoga gear. There were flashes of dissent but most of it confined to minor grumbles.

Bog brush-haired Lord Londesborough (Crossbench) wasn’t happy about the decision to hike corporation tax which he complained scared off investors.

Lowering his head a little, Hunt described the criticism as an ‘unfair characterisation’ — in a tone as dry as Manzanilla sherry.

He seemed to imply: ‘I’m afraid you don’t know what you’re talking about, pal.’

The biggest compliment to Hunt’s budget came earlier at Treasury Questions, when Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves ignored it altogether, preferring to focus on the current wobbles in the banking sector.

By far the angriest person in the Chamber it turned out was Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) who accused the Chancellor of presiding over ‘a high-tax, high-spend, low-growth, quasi-socialist economy’.

It may be it’s his own side the Chancellor needs to watch out for.

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