Richard Cree 8 Mar 2017 03:26pm

Gags, spreadsheets and soaring cliché

That people call the chancellor “Spreadsheet Phil” is now so widely known that the man himself felt able to use it as the hook for one of his kick-off gags in this, his first (and last) Spring Budget

He referred to a previous chancellor to scrap the Spring Budget, Norman (now Lord) Lamont. He noted that, despite it being praised as “the right Budget at the right time, from the right chancellor” by prime minister John Major, Lamont was sacked 10 days later. It’s nice to know there is one corner of the world apparently more stable now than it was almost 25 years ago.

Hammond started strongly with a stream of gags that wouldn’t disgrace a stand-up and throughout included plenty of the now-compulsory political zingers aimed across the House (“they don’t call them the last Labour government for nothing”, “a fund for driverless cars, something those opposite should be very familiar with”, “Jeremy Corbyn is so far down a black hole even Stephen Hawking has disowned him”). Everyone, apart from those on the benches opposite, appeared to be having a fine old time.

It was when Hammond launched into details that things got a little more, er, spreadsheety. Explaining planned changes to the National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for the self-employed, he spoke at great length about the benefits paid to the employed and the self-employed and about Class 2 and Class 4 NICs. It was, for a brief spell, like listening to someone reading a spreadsheet.

The House of Commons went quiet. I’m convinced even the deputy speaker might have checked his phone. The upshot of these changes is that if you are self-employed because of the tax advantages it brings, there will soon be marginally fewer pounds in your pocket, so you might need to think again. Likewise, if you operate as a company merely to benefit from the £5,000 tax-free dividend, there will soon be 3,000 fewer reasons to be incorporated. It seems unlikely these changes will have the doom and gloom impact on the economy many in the small business community are predicting, but it does send an odd message to entrepreneurs and innovators.

More news, analysis, reaction and comment from the Spring Budget

Before the boredom on NICs became terminal, Hammond hit a new tone, resorting to the sort of soaring rhetoric (some might say cliché) politicians often use when they want to score political points, without really having much new to announce. He talked of delivering an economy for the next generation, an economy that works for everyone and a country that’s open for business, being the best place in the world to start and run a business (hands up if you’ve heard that one before). Of course, he also spoke of the productivity gap and the need to train and equip the young with the technical skills they need when entering the workplace. To this end he announced a new qualification – the T-Level – and formally announced much-trumpeted extra funding for schools.

On International Women’s Day, he announced some extra support for women’s charities (something his female boss had already done) and then declared himself delighted that a tax (the sugar tax) was bringing in less than forecast (because fizzy drinks are getting healthier). He also announced a one-year delay in the launch of the Making Tax Digital project for businesses at or below the VAT threshold.

On business rates, an issue that had grabbed many headlines ahead of the Budget, Hammond offered both short-term relief and long-term uncertainty. Because of the amount it contributes to the exchequer, the rates system will not be scrapped. But it will be fundamentally changed, with yet another consultation and review of the system due before the next revaluation. Short-term help includes a £50 cap on rates for SMEs coming out of the existing relief scheme and a bit of help for over 90% of pubs.

After also throwing some extra money at the NHS, and social care in particular, and announcing how some of the funds announced in the Autumn Statement would be spent (things like a fund for 5G and driverless cars), hinting at extra devolutionary powers for London, the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine, he put together a string of powerfully empty catchphrases and sat down.

He hadn’t mentioned the B-word once, but it was pretty obviously the main driver behind everything he couldn’t or didn’t do, was a reluctance to do too much ahead of the imminent triggering of Article 50. Rarely can a chancellor, having been handed such a huge fiscal boost ahead of standing up, managed to do so little with it. In summary, this was probably the right sort of Budget at roughly the right time by probably the right chancellor. And it will be largely forgotten as such.

Richard Cree is editor-in-chief of economia