Shelagh Fogarty is Leading Britain's Conversation.
9 March 2017, 13:22
Time to be frank. I have long thought Spreadsheet Phil an over promoted mediocrity – a good Chairman of the Surbiton Chamber of Commerce in a bad year - but even I was astonished what a hash he made of yesterday’s Budget.
Normally budgets start off with a good press, and the rot sets in a day or two later. Even George Osborne’s Omnishambles Budget, when, if you recall Cornish pasties were taxed, got that grace period.
But the profound political error at the heart of Spreadsheet Phil’s first effort yesterday was apparent even before he sat down.
What is a Conservative Chancellor doing taking on the self-employed? It’s about as fundamentally foolish an error as any Tory Chancellor could make.
Self-employed people are at the heart of the Tory vision of a successful society; brave warriors of entrepreneurism, who step outside the corporate safety net to go their own way.
Phil says it has to be done in the interest of “fairness”.
And with that misleading word "fairness", Phil gives the game away. That’s the kind of language used by Treasury officials. They pushed him into a proposition that he should have instinctively repudiated as political nonsense, but didn’t.
And Phil’s “Cornish pasty” moment will cost him and the Tories dear, because it explodes a number of myths, beginning with Phil being a safe pair of hands.
Manifestly he isn’t, and the smug self-satisfaction with which he presented his Budget suggests Phil has broken another fundamental rule of politics; enjoy flattery (if you can get it), but don’t inhale.
But it’s even worse than that. There is a manifesto pledge not to increase National Insurance Contributions. Despite that Phil fell for his officials “rope-a-dope” strategy, just as Osborne did over Omnishambles.
And now the officials responsible for this sorry mess have roped another dope, getting the Chief Secretary to explain away Phil’s bad day at the office by saying this pledge only applied to class one NI contributions, not class four, which the self-employed pay.
What weasel words! What utter rubbish!!
And the real irony is, Phil didn’t have to do it. If he was determined to chuck another £2 billion down the bottomless black hole marked social care, he could have done it out of buoyant tax revenues, and lower interest charges. He didn’t have to touch the self-employed at all.
Another funny thing, there was no mention of Brexit, and the fact that all the catastrophic predictions Osborne was fed by Treasury officials about the consequences of a Brexit vote hasn’t happened. Why didn’t Phil mention that? Because it was the officials' speech, not his, which explains all that interminable, impenetrable jargon.
People sometimes say to me that the Brexit negotiations are inhibiting the government from getting on with the real job. Phil’s Budget shows that Brexit, plus Corbyn’s ineptitude, is actually distracting us from realising how hopeless some of Theresa May’s senior ministers are.
Led by spreadsheet Phil, who has risen without trace, and, after yesterday, should now fall like Icarus.