Budget blunder scuppers prospect of an early election

Chris Moncrieff
Chris Moncrieff

An early general election?

I suspect the prospects of that course of action - which has been strongly urged on the Prime Minister by many of her supporters - have possibly been irretrievably scuppered by Chancellor Philip Hammond’s crass Budget decision to dishonour a manifesto pledge by increasing National Insurance on the self-employed.

He says, with just possibly some justification, that this move is only fair because it puts the self-employed on a par with those not self-employed.

But breaking an election promise is the last thing any politician should do unless he is looking for a savage political assault on his integrity from all quarters, including many of his own Tory colleagues.

If Hammond thought he would get away with this, he is even more naive than he appeared at the despatch box on Budget Day - and that is saying something.

And it is inexplicable to me that his outrageous proposal was not picked up by his Cabinet colleagues, when he unfolded the Budget’s contents on the day before he delivered it. It has now emerged that the Cabinet may not have been comprehensively briefed on the Budget’s contents - which is another scandal.

A little levity in a Budget is not a bad thing, but Hammond should have concentrated more on the needs of the economy and the importance of his integrity, than on his jokes.

It is not an exaggeration to say this monumental blunder may have damaged the Tories’ general election prospects. It has almost certainly affected the timing of the election.

David Cameron has, without exaggeration, I think, described what happened as “stupid” and “just mad”. While one of Hammond’s predecessors, Lord (Norman) Lamont has denounced the Chancellor as a rookie.

Hammond has been known as “spreadsheet Phil”. Now that famous spreadsheet is disfigured by dollops of political blood which will require hours of hard scrubbing if it is to be pristine again.

:: So here we have a situation where the Government is caught with its trousers around its ankles and in a state of utter disarray - and how does HM Opposition react? It launches a completely unnecessary internal storm about Scottish independence!

To mix the metaphor, is Labour simply incapable of recognising a gaping open goal when they see one?

Corbyn has not only succeeded in stirring up unnecessary trouble among some of his Westminster colleagues, but he seems to have flouted the views of the Scottish Labour Party which is dead against it. What a cock-up!

Corbyn has been denounced from his own back-benches for his “idiocy” and various other uncomplimentary epithets.

It is said Governments need a strong Opposition, but Theresa May must be thankful that this one cannot apparently see beyond its nose.

:: Westminster seems so wound up these days with Brexit and Budget that it appears to have put on one side, at least temporarily, the boiling turmoil in Stormont.

Yet no current political issue is more important than this. For it could decide, one prays without bloodshed, the future course Northern Ireland will ultimately take. The sudden upsurge of Sinn Fein, coupled with the fall in Unionism, have put an entirely different face on this critical situation. The various strands of Unionism are trying to cobble together some form of unity during these intensive three-week talks. But it is not easy.

And the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, has not got off to a brilliant start, having already been accused of, “Wafffle, waffle, waffle”.

But he has warned that if no kind of agreement is reached during this period, then another election would have to take place.

And what then? Another bout of direct rule? Some commentators are already talking about the prospect of a unified Ireland.

It is a dire situation and one can only pray it is resolved peacefully.

:: I see the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is about to launch a tea offensive on fractious Labour MPs to try to make them more leader-friendly over a cuppa.

The late Mo Mowlam, when she was a shadow City Minister, tried something similar with what she termed a gin and tonic offensive to lure City types to back Labour.

Perhaps the most calamitous tea offensive of all was conducted by Edward Heath, when he was Prime Minister.

Peter Walker, one of his key supporters and Cabinet Ministers, told him: “Prime Minister, many of your back-benchers are getting restless because you spend all your time in your ivory tower and never speak to them. Why don’t you occasionally go into the tea room and chat with some of them over a cup of tea and a bun?”

Heath did not appear very enthusiastic. However, when Walker went into the tearoom the following day, he was pleasantly surprised to see Heath sitting there chatting to his back-benchers.

But as Walker passed by them, he heard Heath say to one of his colleagues: “That was a bloody awful speech you made last night...”

Later, Walker was heard to say: “You just can’t win...”