CHANCELLOR Philip Hammond introduced his Spring Budget last week with a series of laboured “jokes” directed at Jeremy Corbyn and guaranteed leering laughter by his backbenchers.
His stand-up comedy career ran into the wall yesterday as, sat in stony silence, Theresa May rowed back on the 2 per cent increase in national insurance contributions (Class 4 NICs) for the self-employed.
The Prime Minister did her best for the shame-faced Chancellor, claiming that his Budget had been consistent with her party’s post-election pledge not to raise taxes during this Parliament.
But both she and her hapless colleague knew that the NIC increase drove a horse and cart through the Tories’ election manifesto promise not to raise national insurance, VAT or income tax.
Hammond’s political ill-judgement — clearly shared by May — was not restricted to an inability to understand that breaching election pledges is not considered a good thing.
It extended to a failure to grasp that many Tory MPs fight shy of acknowledging their party’s first priority to the City of London, preferring to pass themselves off as the voice of small businesses, entrepreneurs and the self-employed.
Increasing Class 4 NICs for the self-employed stuck in their craw, leading many to inform the dimwit duo that they would not support it.
Given the government’s modest majority, defeat loomed, forcing it red-faced into another policy U-turn, making this almost an annual institution.
Hammond’s embarrassment over NICs mirrored George Osborne’s back-flips on personal independence payments last year and tax credits in 2015.
However, Tory ministers are never truly alone with the likes of BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and Daily Politics pair Jo Coburn and Andrew Neil to portray every government stumble as a pratfall by Corbyn.
On Budget day last week, Corbyn’s devastating assault on the government’s threadbare plans to deal with the crises in the NHS and social care was slated for not mentioning the Tory manifesto even though he attacked the decision to raise the NIC rate.
This week, he was slated for a supposed inability to “think on his feet” after the government slipped out its U-turn announcement just minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions began.
Such personalised and distorted media coverage plumbs depths unequalled even during the systematic ridiculing of Neil Kinnock before the 1992 general election or Tony Benn throughout his political career.
Every Labour MP interviewed on TV on radio is invited from the outset to declare their distance from the party leader before tackling the subject under discussion.
Too many still avail themselves of this luxury rather than support Corbyn’s astute exposure of Tory hypocrisy and disinformation, especially over funding of the NHS and social care.
The humiliation heaped on Hammond and May as a result of their U-turn emphasises that their government is vulnerable.
Corbyn excoriated Hammond for his provision in the Budget of just £2 billion over three years to cover the crisis in social care — just a third of what the Local Government Association calculates is necessary.
The question now arises as to how the Chancellor will meet this shortfall.
Two billion pounds is not a great sum in the grand scheme of government finance, but Hammond was at such a loss to raise it that he felt justified in ignoring a manifesto commitment made just two years ago.
The Tories’ pledge not to raise NICs, VAT or income tax paints them into a corner.
All Labour MPs need to unite now behind Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell to keep the pressure on this wobbling government.