Humiliation seemed inevitable for Philip Hammond after it emerged, just before Prime Minister’s Questions, that he was shelving the flagship part of his Spring Budget, the National Insurance hike. But Jeremy Corbyn spared his blushes when he got to grill Theresa May. “Gentleman that he was, he would not dream of harassing a lady in so unchivalrous a manner,” writes Michael Deacon. “So instead he wittered about headteachers, informed the House that he wanted “a staircase for all, not a ladder for the few” – and, for the final time, sat down.”
The Chancellor still had to eat humble pie in the Commons afterwards as he had to explain his retreat. MPs ribbed him mercilessly after he declared that the first person to make him aware after the Budget that he had broken the Conservative manifesto by pledging to raise National Insurance was BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, which suggests that no one in the Treasury saw this would be a problem. The decision to park the tax rise came just after 8am this morning, he admitted, which surprised Tory minister Rory Stewart, who had been defending the rise on the Daily Politics later that morning. Mr Hammond didn’t disown the idea outright, insisting to MPs that it aimed to sort a “structural issue within the tax base on which we will have to act”.
Obviously, the short-term headlines will be awful for the Chancellor. Spreadsheet Phil’s reputation for forensic management has taken a hefty knock, as he now has to find £2 billion over the next few months from a less controversial source than the self-employed. But could there be a longer-term strategy at work? As Theresa May prepares to trigger Article 50, she will need all her political capital to thrash out a deal that will convince her cabinet, Parliament, and the public. That would explain her reluctance to spend it on things her MPs hate the sound of, like hiking National Insurance or her new schools funding formula. To sail Britain through the Brexit process, the Prime Minister may have decided she has to get the ” barnacles off the boat” first.
Given the Government’s overarching focus on Brexit, there is one group who will gain from the humiliation of the former Remain backer: Tory Brexiteers. “A Chancellor who was the champion within government of a softer form of Brexit has been weakened, possibly fatally,” writes James Kirkup. “The balance of power in the Conservative Party has just shifted, again, in favour of the Brexiteers, and the hardest form of Brexit.”
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