Spare a thought for ‘Friendless Phil’ this week. It’s that time of year when the Chancellor of the Exchequer reaches into the closet for his super villain costume and leaves Number 11 Downing Street to deliver another Budget.
The only certainty of this week’s Budget is that we all have a grumble, of varying degrees, at the Chancellor’s expense. So it’s a lonely job for Phillip Hammond, just as it has been for every Chancellor who served before him.
Mr Hammond is already under fire for a gaffe uttered in the company of Andrew Marr at the weekend. “Where are all these unemployed people? There are no unemployed people?” he stated on Sunday. The media inevitably pounced on his ill chosen words and gave him a beasting ahead of what was already looking like a tough week for the Chancellor. One hopes his speech will not yield any more gaffes such as the 2012 ‘pasty tax’ debacle – especially if the ‘Get Hammond’ conspiracy has any legs.
It is the nature of the job that the Chancellor is a somewhat understated member of the team, chosen for powers of prudence rather than sparkling wit, a good line in repartee or an ability to banter. Most Chancellors , especially those in recent history, have an element of bland to them, as they try to tow the party line while balancing the country’s books.
John Major encapsulated the greyishness of the role. Meanwhile Alistair Darling was praised for being ‘a safe pair of hands’ by his party but delivered a performance in 2008 that was derided as the ‘most boring budget speech ever’ by the Daily Telegraph. And despite George Osborne airing his creative side as editor of the Evening Standard, he was a far more subdued figure during his years in the post.
As the Budget is essentially a notice of intention to raid the nation’s pockets in the coming months, a Budget speech must set the right tone. It is important that the Chancellor conveys a sense of gravitas on the occasion of a Budget speech and a sense that what he is doing in the interests of the country. That said, Budget speeches are renowned for their length and, as one might expect, their dullness!
So there will be some sympathy for Mr Hammond this week if he takes advantage of the traditional privilege extended to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the only member of Parliament permitted to bring an alcoholic drink into the chamber (common sense says it those who must sit through the speech who are more deserving of a tipple!).
It came as some surprise, while researching this blog, just how much of a tradition booze has played in the Budgets of years gone by. William Gladstone delivered a whopping 4 hour 45 minute speech in 1853 that was fuelled by egg and sherry, while Hugh Gaitskell (1950 – 51) tippled on orange and rum, while Winston Churchill (1924 – 1929) predictably quaffed Brandy.
And it does not stop there! According to reports, during Norman Lamont’s Chancellorship, the iconic Chancellor’s bag, traditionally held aloft in Downing Street, contained a bottle of whiskey, while his aide, William Hague, carried the speech in a plastic bag (hopefully not one carrying the branding of the local off licence).
Of course, in reality, imagine the media storm if Phillip Hammond really did turn up with a pint or a tumbler of the harder stuff in hand? Off the top of my head I would venture that the resulting media storm would produce at least one ‘Chancellor Hammered’ headline on Thursday, no doubt matched with the most unflattering eyes- closed photo the picture editor could find…