Bill Carmichael: Smug Philip Hammond has smirk wiped off

The Chancellor is for turning: Philip Hammond abandoned the centerpiece of last weeks Budget  a �2bn tax raid on the self-employed. (PA).
The Chancellor is for turning: Philip Hammond abandoned the centerpiece of last weeks Budget  a �2bn tax raid on the self-employed. (PA).
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What an utter fiasco! The sound of squealing brakes and the smell of burning rubber in the House of Commons this week heralded the most humiliating U-turn in recent Budget history.

As predicted in this column last week, laughing boy Philip Hammond had the smug smile wiped off his face by a Conservative backbench rebellion over his manifesto-breaking National Insurance rises.

As a result, the Chancellor was forced to abandon the centerpiece of last week’s Budget – a £2bn tax raid on the self-employed – just a week after he announced it, thereby knocking an enormous hole in his sums.

This was far worse than George Osborne’s ill-fated “pasty tax” Budget, not just by reason of the scale of the figures involved, but because Hammond’s plans broke clear promises repeated no fewer than four times in the 2015 election manifesto.

Most astonishing of all, Hammond admitted he only realised he was breaking those commitments when he was reminded of the fact by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

When Conservative Cabinet Ministers have to rely on the BBC to remind them of the solemn promises made to voters less than two years ago, they are clearly in big trouble.

You may recall that Hammond spent much of his Budget speech last week making lame jokes at the expense of Labour’s admittedly feeble opposition. The Labour Party in Parliament is such a shambles that it deserves all the ridicule it gets. But Hammond’s smirking self-satisfaction was off-putting and unworthy of his high office.

And as a grammar school and Oxford educated man he should know his Greek mythology – those guilty of hubris can expect swift retribution from the revengeful goddess Nemesis. So it happened in this case.

Such is the scale of this disaster that in normal times it would probably end Hammond’s career and put a serious question mark over the future of Theresa May’s Government.

But these are not normal times. As Jeremy Corbyn again demonstrated in the Commons this week, there is no Parliamentary opposition to the Government worth speaking of.

Last week the Labour leader failed to notice the attack on the self-employed and didn’t even mention it in his Budget response.

This week at Prime Minister’s Questions, with Theresa May gasping for air and clinging to the ropes, Corbyn managed to climb into the ring and then instead of scoring an easy knock-out he proceeded to punch himself several times in the face.

Rather than asking the tough questions required, he made a few rambling statements and when he failed to land a glove on the Prime Minister, he switched to a question about education. It was simply embarrassing.

At one point Mrs May said to Corbyn, almost in pity: “I don’t think the gentleman has quite got the hang of this, he’s supposed to ask a question to me when he stands up.”

Corbyn lacks any sharpness or wit, or the ability to think on his feet. He is as dull as an old butter knife and as a result lets the Government off the hook time and again.

So thanks to the ineptitude of Corbyn and his front bench, it looks – incredibly – as though May and Hammond are going to get away with this blunder.

But where do the Tories go from here? I hope the events of the last week have been a truly chastening experience and they realise that Labour’s weakness is no excuse for smug over-confidence.

Although there is no effective opposition in Parliament, out in the wider country there are millions of 
voters – including many self-employed people – who were persuaded to vote Conservative in 2015 on the back on promises not to increase income tax, VAT or National Insurance.

They won’t forget those pledges even if Mr Hammond conveniently tries to.So perhaps Mrs May could start her Government’s recovery by setting members of the Cabinet a little homework?

Each Minister should be presented with a copy of the Conservative 2015 election manifesto with instructions to read it from cover to cover and commit every pledge to memory over the weekend.