This was an elastoplast Budget.
Its purpose was to cover the deepening gash in the Conservative party, give Philip Hammond’s reputation time to heal, and keep out germs hurled by the opposition benches.
In this regard, it mostly worked.
The £3bn worth of Brexit spending will reassure the more eurosceptic cabinet members that the chancellor is serious about leaving the EU and is not trying to sabotage negotiations from Number 11 Downing Street.
Hammond also stuck to his fiscal rules, keeping the deficit below two per cent of national income, and thus clung on to his remaining credibility after weeks of gaffes and blunders.
As for attacks from Labour, Hammond had two defences. The first was a fix to the roll-out of Universal Credit, reducing waiting periods that threatened the most vulnerable in society. This was clearly aimed at dampening Labour’s rallying cry that the Tories don’t care about the poor.
The second, less successful, strategy was an offer to young people. The Conservative party finally acknowledged its looming youth problem at the conference in September, and has since been in a panic about fixing it.
The numbers are damning.
Voters under 24 side with Labour over the Tories by 66 to 14 per cent, according to an October YouGov survey. But the problem doesn’t stop with young twenty-somethings – just 31 per cent of those aged 25-49 would vote Conservative.
This is exactly the cohort the Tories should be targeting: working people in the process of settling down and starting and raising families. Yet on every policy issue, from healthcare to tax to the economy in general, Labour beats the Tories with both these age groups. Housing is the most catastrophic of all, with just 16 per cent of 25-49 year olds trusting the Conservatives to handle this problem best, versus 35 per cent for Labour.
Against this backdrop, Hammond’s offering this week was dismal: a railcard with reduced off-peak travel to 25-30 year olds, and axing stamp duty for first-time buyers.
The off-peak railcard is a joke for working people – many of them over 30 – forced to spend a sizeable portion of their income commuting from far out where they can just about afford to live. As for stamp duty, it is predicted that the change will just push up houses prices, thereby benefiting owners more than buyers.
Neither of these in any way makes up for the government’s continued refusal to build on parts of the green belt, or its sluggishness in fixing the planning system so the housing shortage can be tackled with supply-side reforms.
Moreover, there were no changes to pensions or social care, nor any bid to address Britain’s ageing population, which is putting strain on both the economy and working families.
Luckily, whatever short-term damage Hammond did to the Tories’ reputation this Budget was quickly mitigated by Labour’s John McDonnell.
The shadow chancellor refused to answer questions on his spending proposals, accusing a BBC presenter of “trite journalism” when she asked him nine times how much servicing the UK’s debt would cost under Labour’s borrowing plans.
Hardline Corbynites may take this as yet another example of the “biased mainstream media”, but for most people it will serve as yet another reminder that Labour cannot make its sums add up, and refuses even to try.
Long term, however, this won’t be enough. The tribal, banner-touting rallyists chanting “ohhh Jeremy Corbyn” and “never kissed a Tory” can be discounted, but the Conservatives can’t expect electoral survival with support of just 27 per cent among those aged 49 and under.
To win back these voters, the message must be stronger than “the other guys will wreck the economy” – even if they will. That will require some tough decisions on house-building, pensions, and social care – clearly not moves this chancellor or this government are prepared to make.
Corbyn seems invincible in the polls among millennials, however economically illiterate he and his team may be. The Conservatives need to revamp their offer to the under-50s – this plaster Budget won’t hold the them together through another election.
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