Andrew Vine: Fiscal Phil's jokes fall flat as North is ignored again in Budget

WELL, Phil, nice try but not really convincing. A Budget that tinkers at the edges and promises jam not tomorrow, but at some point in the future. Maybe.There was a curious sense of unreality about the Budget.

Autumn Budget cartoon by Graeme Bandeira

It’s always a piece of political theatre, but this one felt more like putting a brave face on things than addressing the real problems.

That’s because it was impossible to take much of what the Chancellor said seriously. Not because of a script that had plenty of jocularity, but because the final act of this particular comedy of errors is yet to be written.

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Philip Hammond had already scuppered the credibility of his third Budget by touring the television studios on Sunday admitting that if Brexit means Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal, the whole thing will have to be torn up and started from scratch.

The insistence by Downing Street that Brexit won’t affect the spending plans just didn’t ring true.

He gets a lukewarm round of applause for having the honesty to admit that, but it did render the Budget more akin to a stab in the dark at what the future holds, rather than being a confident assessment of how things will turn out.

Yes, a raising of tax allowances is always welcome, along with help for mental health services, armed forces personnel, and an attempt to make the wretched Universal Credit system work.

But as Fiscal Phil twinkled, there was little for the rest of us to smile about, especially here in the North where urgent action is necessary across a whole series of fronts if we are to prosper.

In particular, the need to do something about the transport network wasn’t addressed.

Mr Hammond is reportedly an enthusiastic petrolhead who likes fast cars and putting his foot down on an open road.

I’d like to see him try it here, because no such thing exists.

His promise of £25bn for improvements to the motorway network sounds impressive, but spread across the whole country, just isn’t enough.

It won’t transform the M62 from the country’s most elevated car park into the smoothly-flowing key route it should be.

Those stuck in crawling or stationary traffic on A-roads and congested commuter routes on their way home from work in the hours after the Budget could justifiably wonder why the Chancellor didn’t do anything for them.

It isn’t just the roads. There was nothing for the railways in the North.

We might still be a different country from the south-east, lip-service being paid to the Northern Powerhouse, but there was no substantial new investment, in contrast to hundreds of millions for Northern Ireland, whose MPs just coincidentally happen to be keeping the Government in office.

Nor was there enough help for our high streets, too many of which are dying slowly and painfully as independent shops pull down the shutters, unable to compete with online retailers who pay a fraction of their overheads.

There was too little, too late, and the Chancellor’s figures don’t stand up to scrutiny because the context of the real world exposes them as little more than a gesture.

Cutting business rates won’t be enough to save many, especially since he said the face of the high street has changed irrevocably.

That assertion is just not on. We don’t have to admit defeat and accept the loss of independent shops.

Those who run them strain every sinew to stay in business, and the Chancellor should have done likewise to help them do so.

And giving £650m to councils to improve town and city centres is peanuts.

For starters, there are more than 400 local authorities in the UK to share that around.

To take one recent example of how much it costs to regenerate a single area, the Victoria Gate development in Leeds cost £150m.

Too many of the promises are years down the line, when action is needed now.

It’s probably a good thing for the Chancellor that he isn’t blessed with having a pair of eyes in the back of his head.

If he could have seen the expression on the Prime Minister’s face throughout, he might well have been rather less jokey.

Stony-faced would be an understatement. Even her routine pat on his shoulder as he sat down had a perfunctory quality.

If your boss behaves like that, it doesn’t usually indicate a long and glittering career ahead.

Theresa May gave more away by saying nothing than he did over the course of an hour and more. She knew this wasn’t the Budget of a bright new dawn.

This was insisting that everything is fine and running smoothly, when it plainly isn’t. That’s political theatre for you.

The trouble is, for the rest of us stuck in cars, or on trains, or seeing our high streets wither and die, or seething with frustration at the lack of investment in the North, it’s a whole lot more important than that.