Odd-looking chap, the chancellor. Give him a moustache and a top hat and he could be Neville Chamberlain. Or a funeral director. With his stooping frame and his watchful hook-nosed features he has the air of a vulture about to feast on carrion. But he struck a kindlier note at the Budget as he set out his vision of a thrusting, modern economy. ‘Every one of our citizens,’ he trilled, ‘can contribute to – and share in – the benefits of prosperity.’ The UK, he said, ‘is a beacon of creativity, a civilised and tolerant place that cares for the vulnerable and nurtures the talented.’ Was he practising a voice-over for a housing development in paradise? ‘Global Britain,’ he intoned, ‘is a prosperous, inclusive economy, where everyone has the opportunity to shine.’ Talking about measures to curb smog he fluted, ‘We owe it to our children that the air they breathe is clean’. By the time he got to the NHS he was almost drooling. ‘Our nation’s nurses provide invaluable support to us all in times of greatest need.’
Funeral Phil has a sense of comedy that goes unnoticed. It’s a donnish, nerdy style of humour. Adrian Mole would love it. He delivered a lengthy paragraph in praise of mathematics and promised more cash for teachers and fat bribes for schools that encourage pupils to take maths A-level. ‘More maths for everyone, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let no one say I don’t know how to show the nation a good time.’
Funeral Phil’s main target today was the under-30s and their lack of accommodation. Basically, his plan is to get the young to vote Tory by giving them a house. One each. Politicians secretly love the housing shortage because they can’t possibly treat it with an immediate fix. But they can pretend to. Which is what Phil did today. First-time buyers will be exempt from stamp duty on properties worth up to £300k. Will that help anyone buy a house? Hardly. Lowering the cost of an item brings new bidders into the market which intensifies demand and raises prices. And Phil specified that this was an abracadabra measure – coming into force as soon as the words fell from his ashen lips – so the price-hikes will be visible on Zoopla tonight. If not right now.
There was more fancy footwork on the issue of brownfield sites. Phil has no wish to tackle this problem but he wants to look as if he’s got it taped. He announced that 270,000 plots are lying vacant in London, even though planning permission has been granted. Everyone knows why. Speculators are betting huge sums on the casino of planning law. But Phil won’t intervene because his free-market instincts won’t let him. Instead he announced an ‘urgent enquiry’ headed by the Tory party’s most lugubrious and indolent investigator, Sir Oliver Letwin. A sloth among sleuths. Everyone loves dear Sir Ollie, of course, but it has been pointed out that it takes him two weeks to decide whether to yawn or sneeze. Helpfully, Phil described the conclusions that Sir Oliver’s enquiry must reach: if the profit motive is stopping land-owners from building houses then ‘compulsory purchase’ orders may be used. Or possibly not. It wasn’t clear. Phil added ‘if necessary,’ as a get-out clause.
And he had terrific news for rough-sleepers. He promised to halve homelessness by 2022. And to eradicate it by 2027. That schedule leaves him plenty of time to scarper before the deadline arrives. He failed to mention that abolishing homelessness is like abolishing hunger. If the state intervenes every time a citizen feels peckish, it must hand out doughnuts on every street corner. Likewise, rooting out homelessness means a free hotel-room for everyone, funded by everyone else.