Spreadsheet Phil became a veritable thigh slapper: QUENTIN LETTS on a moment of pantomime hokum during the budget

Don't yet book him as warm-up man for comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown in Dundee tomorrow night, but Philip Hammond worked plenty of gags into his 62-minute Budget yesterday. Yes, the most boring man in British politics produced some zingers – or what passes for zingers in the Commons – as he sought to save his job.

Spreadsheet Phil became a veritable thigh-slapper. He had the House groaning and guffawing by turns. In the process he perhaps wanted to distract our minds from gloomy growth forecasts.

As ever, the Budget was a selective account of the nation’s finances but judged simply as political theatre, Mr Hammond performed a few notches above expectations. He certainly saw off Jeremy Corbyn, whose immediate response was an unhappy, stuttering vignette.

PM Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond pictured laughing in the Commons yesterday

PM Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond pictured laughing in the Commons yesterday

The Chancellor certainly saw off Jeremy Corbyn, whose immediate response was an unhappy, stuttering vignette

The Chancellor certainly saw off Jeremy Corbyn, whose immediate response was an unhappy, stuttering vignette

Mr Hammond had to wait for PMQs to over-run by seven minutes. He glanced through his fat Budget Day text, making a few scribbly alterations on the pages. Was he nervous? Who wouldn’t be? The morning newspapers had almost unanimously declared that he had lost No 10’s confidence.

When he opened his speech, the voice was tighter than usual. The jokes helped settle him. Early on came a moment of rehearsed pantomime hokum when he said the Prime Minister had brought some emergency cough sweets for him (echoes of her croaky conference speech, when he did the same for her). Theresa May duly produced a box of Strepsils from her pocket and plonked them on the despatch box. Quite the conjuror’s grinning assistant.

Mr Hammond was soon taking a swipe about former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, currently in the ITV jungle. Corbynism’s economic hopelessness meant plenty of other comrades would soon be saying ‘I’m Labour, get me out of here’, said ‘Laugh-A-Minute’ Phil. This was watched from an upstairs gallery by Chuka Umunna (Lab, Streatham), a Mandelsonian in misery at his party’s hard-Leftism. He just clutched his handsome brow. Meanwhile, jokesmith Hammond had swipes at Lewis Hamilton (when he imposed higher tax on private jets), trade unionist Len McCluskey (when Labour failed to welcome a policy change their pal Len had demanded) and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

Theresa May duly produced a box of Strepsils from her pocket and plonked them on the despatch box

Theresa May duly produced a box of Strepsils from her pocket and plonked them on the despatch box

Quite the conjuror?s grinning assistant. Mr Hammond was soon taking a swipe about former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, currently in the ITV jungle

Quite the conjuror’s grinning assistant. Mr Hammond was soon taking a swipe about former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, currently in the ITV jungle

Naughty Mr Gove has reportedly been eyeing the Chancellorship and spouting ‘long, economicky words’ in Cabinet meetings. As Mr Hammond began a passage of his speech about tax matters, he said: ‘This is the bit with the long, economicky words in it.’ The Cabinet laughed merrily.

Mr Gove was nowhere to be seen. David Davis arrived late and watched from the wings. Dominic Grieve (sometimes Con, Beaconsfield) stood behind the Speaker’s Chair and spent much of the time polishing his spectacles. Rodin’s thinker with a hankie.

In addition to jokes, Mr Hammond packed his opening remarks with expressions of optimism. ‘No one should doubt our resolve,’ he cried after mentioning Brexit. ‘We choose the future! We choose to run towards change, not away from it. The price will be enormous.’ This delighted Labour MPs. Only a moment later did they realise he had in fact said ‘prize’.

‘Resign!’ shouted an Opposition voice, not yet with the upbeat zeitgeist. During announcements of more money for the NHS, Labour’s John Ashworth kept shouting ‘it’s not enough!’.

In addition to jokes, Mr Hammond packed his opening remarks with expressions of optimism

In addition to jokes, Mr Hammond packed his opening remarks with expressions of optimism

The most shaming line of the Budget came when he reported debt forecasts, which are finally heading in the right direction

The most shaming line of the Budget came when he reported debt forecasts, which are finally heading in the right direction

There was also a Hammond joke about TV’s Jeremy Clarkson but if I started to explain it, we’d be here until p94.

The most shaming line of the Budget came when he reported debt forecasts, which are finally heading in the right direction, and said: ‘This is the first sustained decline in debt in 17 years.’ No wonder our economy has struggled. We have had years of idiotic over-spending by weak politicians.

Jeremiah Corbyn indicated he would do more of that if elected.

The only spark in his moany speech came when after an oikish Tory whip, who was sitting in the gangway, made one heckle too many. Mr Corbyn flew into an impressive extempore rage against poverty.

Some of his MPs cheered devotedly and angrily. But the Blairites kept their counsel.

It's the way he tells 'em: Phil's zingers?

  • The Chancellor used Theresa May as a sidekick for his first joke, referencing the PM’s struggle with a cough during her speech at this year’s Tory conference.?He said: ‘I’m being tempted by something a little more exotic here, but I’m going to stick to plain water. I did take the precaution of asking my right honourable friend to bring a packet of cough sweets just in case.’ Mrs May then brandished a packet of Strepsils, suggesting a degree of collaboration between them.

  • He also poked fun at Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, who was accused last week of ‘auditioning’ for the role of Chancellor by using ‘long economicky words’ in Cabinet. The Chancellor said: ‘I shall first report to the House on the economic forecasts of the independent OBR. This is the bit with the long, economicky words.’
  • News that Kezia Dugdale, former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has headed to the Australian jungle to join ITV’s I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! did not escape his attention. He said: ‘If they carry on like that, there’ll be plenty of others joining Kezia Dugdale in saying “I’m Labour... get me out of here!”’
  • Mr Hammond used his announcement on maths teaching investment to make light of his ‘spreadsheet’ reputation. He said: ‘Don’t let anyone say I don’t know how to show the nation a good time.’??
  • He teased former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who claimed over the weekend that he was ‘almost killed’ by a driverless car. The Chancellor said: ‘There is perhaps no technology as symbolic of the revolution gathering pace around us as driverless vehicles. They surely don’t want me to make that joke about the Labour Party again. ‘I know Jeremy Clarkson doesn’t like them but there are many other good reasons to pursue this technology so today we step up our support for it. ‘Sorry Jeremy, not the first time you’ve been snubbed by Hammond and May.’?

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