July 12, 2024

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A Tory chancellor walks into a bar . . . 

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Enjoy this “down payment” on the Conservatives’ careful stewardship of the economy. There won’t be many more. There’s still the spring Budget to come, but chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s generosity was that of a man who knows someone else will be facing the consequences.

The politics of this Autumn Statement were achingly simple. Rishi Sunak needs a tale to tell the voters and after a few months of flailing around with implausible narratives — “I am the change” being the most fanciful — he and the chancellor have finally landed on the only one that was ever going to be available. But it remains a story and neither the Tories nor the electorate should assume it has a happy ending.

The major political takeaway is that the Conservative leadership remains seriously tempted by an election next May. This is the obvious explanation for bringing forward the 2p cut in the rate of national insurance to January. Waiting till next spring’s Budget, as would be normal, would not allow people to feel enough of the benefit if Sunak decides to go early. This does not mean a May election is now likely. Party strategists will base that decision on the polls in March — if the gap remains as wide as today it is hard to see the prime minister rushing towards the cannon fire. But this move keeps his options open.

Hunt is a better communicator than Sunak and his statement offered a clear Conservative argument. It runs like this: after years of enormous external shocks (and weeks of Liz Truss), this government has taken the difficult and painful steps needed to get the economy back on track. Having weathered the pandemic (remember the furlough) and the Ukraine war (remember the energy support), the government is turning the corner, conquering inflation, restoring the public finances and is now able to start giving money back. Only the Tories can be…

2023-11-22 13:09:14

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