When Theresa May announced at this year’s Tory conference that she would put an end to austerity, it’s safe to say that her Chancellor hardly looked thrilled as he clapped from the front row of the hall. Philip Hammond is regarded as a fiscal hawk and rather averse to loosening the purse strings. At today’s Budget, Hammond tried to get on board with No 10’s ending austerity message. But in doing so, he also attempted to put some clear blue water between ‘end austerity’ Conservatives and anti-austerity Labour.
Firstly, Hammond defined what he sees as ‘ending austerity’. The Chancellor said that ending austerity meant an above-inflation increase in departmental spending. The Tory version of ending austerity also means no tax rises in the quest to do so. ‘My idea of ending austerity does not involve raising people’s taxes,’ bellowed the Chancellor – before taking aim at Jeremy Corbyn for wanting to increase the tax burden. To end his address, Hammond attempted to hammer the point home by saying: ‘Austerity is finally coming to and end but discipline will remain’. It’s hardly a catchphrase that rolls off the tongue or fits nicely onto a mug.
However, what ever explanation Hammond came up with it remains the case that large swathes of today’s Budget were Labour-lite. Fiscal Phil announced an end to the government signing off on much-loathed private finance initiative contracts – something Corbyn has already promised and also is a non-announcement given none are even coming up the pipeline. On tech giants avoiding tax, Hammond pledged a crackdown with a UK “digital services tax” aimed only at multimillion companies rather than startups. On universal credit, the government attempted to neutralise the issue with an extra £1bn to ease issues with its rollout.
By Conservative standards, this was a spending spree – and one that should soothe tensions in the Tory party in the short term. But the price of that is that Hammond has put off the deficit reduction target again. What’s more, Labour can still pick things out to suggest that actually austerity isn’t ending. Labour MPs have been quick to go on the attack over the fact more money went to sorting potholes than fixing schools.
Although Hammond’s comments on fiscal discipline did succeed in putting some distance between his party and Labour on hoe to loosen the purse strings, today’s announcement served as confirmation that the party is now fighting on Corbyn’s turf.