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The Budge-It Budget?

Though Rishi Sunak’s tried, tried and tried again, his party conference speech, the King’s speech and this month’s cabinet reshuffle did nothing to shift the Tories’ dire poll rating. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, last week’s budget-in-all-but-name did at least help. A little bit.

Jeremy Hunt wins the quote of the week award for his take on what his Autumn Statement was all about. Here it is in full:

‘It’s silly to think about this in terms of the timing of the next election. We’re trying to make the right decisions for long-term growth of the economy.’

Nothing to do with the election? That calls to mind the legendary one-time Times Deputy Editor Louis Heren’s fabled template for journalists interviewing politicians.

Before asking any follow-up question, he advised, just ask yourself: ‘Why is this lying b*stard lying to me?’ Severe though that sounds, the Chancellor’s chirruping can hardly have fooled anybody.

However, the substance of his pitch did manage to lift some of the gloom on the Conservative back benches, because it did seem to tick a fair few boxes.

Slashing National Insurance? Tick.

Cutting business taxes? Another tick.

Raising benefits in line with inflation? Nice.

One of the largest ever increases of the state pension? Goodie goodie.

Overall, the biggest the biggest bunch of handouts since the 1980s? Mega mega tick.

Yeah but, what about all this freezing of tax thresholds? At a time of reduced but till uncomfortably high inflation? Won’t that mean seven million workers will be out of pocket?

Afraid it will, sighs the government-funded official number-crunching Office for Budget Responsibility.

Also, they add in a rather Eeyore sort of way, this package will have to be paid for. By cutting spending on a depressingly large scale. Over a depressingly wide swathe of public services and infrastructure.

But it’s not like we’re all going to feel the pinch straight away. In fact, the bills won’t start coming in until 2025. Which just happens to be after the next general election.

So, who knows? Maybe voters will have forgotten about the problems in prospect and show their gratitude for the tax cuts by voting the Tories back in next year.

Or maybe they’ll decide that with the overall tab still at a postwar high, and the fall in real living standards just as striking, it really is time for a change.

In which case, however delicious victory may taste on the night, an incoming Labour government would find itself trying to defuse a ticking time bomb.

It’s even possible that disaffected right-wing Tory MPs who’d prefer to be led by sacked ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman than by Rishi Sunak see this as an opportunity.

The logic being that if Labour’s popularity plummets pronto, a Conservative party revamped in their image would be on track to win the election after next.

Probably all rather fanciful. And it’s certainly worth remembering that, dire though the nation’s straits are, they can’t all be blamed on Sunak.

The pandemic cost a fortune, as did the knock-on effects on energy prices of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while the underlying and far bigger reality is the inevitable cost to the exchequer of a progressively ageing population.

All that, it can’t be emphasised too strongly, is just as tricky for either party to navigate.

Not that such strategic dilemmas do anything to dull their enthusiasm for scoring tactical points off one another. And maybe in the process talking a certain amount of nonsense.

While the Tories are traditionally the low tax party, and still maintain despite all evidence to the contrary that that’s what they’re about, Labour are now claiming the mantle for themselves.

Certainly, it was much commented on during the party conference season that big business took a lot more interest in the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeve’s thinking than that of Jeremy Hunt.

Then there’s the vexed question of migration. The officially sanctioned sort, that is, not the, by comparison, small numbers who make it across The Channel in small boats.

It emerged last week that the government’s allowed way over a million people to come here to work or study in the last couple of years, upping the total of incomers to the highest it’s ever been.

Dear oh dear, said the Labour leader, that’s ‘shockingly high’.

Suella Braverman went further, describing it as a ‘slap in the face’. Rather puzzling, that, seeing as until a week or so back she was the one responsible for that aspect of policy.

The issue’s also fraught with irony. Though the Tories have for years been making much of their clearly unsuccessful efforts at reducing the intake, the taxes these extra people pay do boost the economy.

And, basing their calculations on the officially published figures, experts say their contribution has done much to help Jeremy Hunt reduce the amount the rest of us have to shell out.

In short then, these folk who the government wish weren’t here in such numbers are the very people who helped the Chancellor present himself as Mr Nice Guy in his Autumn Statement.

Which brings us back to the question of whether his efforts will rescue the Tories’ fortunes. Or at least make a dent in their unpopularity.

Seems his prayers have been answered, as a major survey a couple of days later gave the Tories a four-point uplift, with the main measures commanding widespread support.

Not that that changes the fact that Labour’s still on course for a potential landslide victory.

Probably because, as YouGov’s Anthony Wells points out: ‘The poll’s other findings suggest few of the public think the changes will do much to help either them or the country.’

Still, some in Number Ten are daring to hope they can somehow seal the compact with the punters even without quite making contact. Stranger things happen, after all, in nature.

Thanks to evidence provided by surveillance cameras in a village in the Netherlands, text books concerning the mating habits of serotine bats may have to be rewritten.

This because, apparently, these dear little creatures actually manage to do it without doing it, manner of speaking.

Which answers the question that’s always baffled scientists about how they’ve managed to survive as a species. Given that the relevant bits of the two genders are, basically, the wrong shape for one another.

‘It was a surprise,’ said said Dr Nicolas Fasel, an expert in bats at the University of Lausanne.

Professor Gareth Jones from Bristol Uni went further, freely confessing: ‘The sexual behaviour of bats never ceases to amaze.’

But, if he thinks they’re getting all the fun, it’s time he checked out a song much beloved by the lads in some rugby clubs, and often sung to the tune of the Eton Boating Song, which begins:

‘The sexual life of the camel is stranger than anyone thinks.’ A bit like the ins and out of politics then.


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