Budget summary: UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt finds humour lightens the mood

He jokes that, at 56, he sees himself as 'experienced' rather than an 'older worker'

UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers his budget. PA
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Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s mention of “swimming pools” in his budget speech on Wednesday caused a huge outbreak of laughter, as he attempted to lay out how Britain's finances are being managed.

Mr Hunt was announcing extra financial support for community leisure facilities amid rising energy costs, but the trigger of opposition mockery was the report from a week earlier that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was upgrading his local power system for an indoor heated swimming pool at his constituency home in Richmond, Yorkshire.

“Drowning!” shouted one Labour MP, in a swipe at the Conservative government’s position in the polls — not pools.

It was one of a number of reminders that the government is dominated by people with a life detached from most others.

Widespread strikes, including one by teachers unions, forced many London primary school pupils to miss class on Wednesday. Mr Hunt's children were watching their father from the gallery but in school uniform, presumably to return to class in the afternoon.

Mr Hunt was parachuted into No 11 Downing Street last October after then-prime minister Liz Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget unleashed chaos on the markets.

After Mr Sunak came into office, Mr Hunt was reappointed Chancellor. Before that, he had been a stalwart of Conservative governments at the foreign, health and culture departments, only to be shunted into the cold during Boris Johnson's three-year premiership.

The Chancellor made his recent midlife ups and downs a theme of his budget, as he attempted to lighten the mood while announcing employment reforms.

Theresa May, the 66-year-old Conservative former minister, offered him a faint smile as Mr Hunt, 56, joked that rather than being considered an “older worker” he identifies more with the term “experienced”.

Quipping about his “new career in finance”, he was caught off guard when one MP shot back: “How did it go?”

“It’s going well, thank you,” the Chancellor responded without a hint of sarcasm.

Then Mr Hunt declared London the best place in the world to be a female entrepreneur and there was more laughter when an opposition voice called out the other former female prime minister.

“Not Liz Truss!” the MP said.

Jeremy Hunt and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: No 10 Downing Street

Defence

Mr Hunt announced the defence budget would be expanded by £11 billion, following talks with “persuasive” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and an “equally persuasive” Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer.

But while the package drew nods of support from the Tory benches, Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee in the House of Commons, offered no visible sign of approval.

Energy

Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, watched intently from a standing position at the back of the room, nodding in approval of the Chancellor’s announcement that the energy price guarantee, which helps households with gas and electricity bills, would be extended until the end of June.

And there were nods all around from the Tory benches when Mr Hunt said poorer households which use prepayment metres to pay energy bills would no longer have to pay a higher price than households that pay by direct debit.

Mr Hunt was heckled by Labour MPs over his declaration that a new “Great British Nuclear” programme would be launched to “bring down costs” and “provide opportunities” in the supply chain.

“It’s so good to hear Labour in favour of nuclear energy,” he said in jest, while at least two Conservative backbench MPs could be seen mimicking clapping as they gestured to their Labour counterparts.

Childcare

Roars of support came from the Tory benches as Mr Hunt announced sweeping childcare reforms, extending the 30 hours of free weekly for one- and two-year-old children.

Jess Phillips, a Labour MP known for her campaigns on women's issues, was less impressed. Shaking her head in disapproval at the Chancellor’s offer of further support for women seeking to get back to work after giving birth, the opposition MP appeared to suggest it was not enough.

Inflation

The Chancellor opened his budget announcement by discussing the government's efforts to halve inflation — one of the Prime Minister's five key pledges.

Declaring that the UK economy is on track to avoid a recession, there was mostly silence from the opposition benches while Mr Sunak himself appeared more than pleased with the Office for Budget Responsibility's forecast.

He smiled and nodded as Mr Hunt said inflation is on track to fall from 10.7 per cent in the final quarter of last year to 2.9 per cent by the end of 2023.

“That is more than halving inflation,” the Chancellor said, as the Prime Minister basked in the moment.

Debt

When delving into the topic of debt, the Chancellor took the opportunity to take a swipe at Labour.

He said thanks to the efforts of Mr Sunak's administration, debt was on the downturn after the Tories “inherited an economy from Labour that had crashed”.

Members of the Labour front bench appeared unimpressed as they sat still with emotionless faces.

OBR forecasts indicate that public sector borrowing is on track to hit £152.4 billion for 2022/23, almost £25 billion less than earlier forecasts.

Levelling up

Priti Patel, a Conservative former minister, was on the edge of her seat for most of the budget announcement, making her views known by nodding in agreement over Mr Hunt’s criticism of Labour.

When Mr Hunt declared the Tories were committed to levelling up communities and delivering their growth agenda, one opposition MP shouted “13 years” in reference to the time the ruling party have been in office.

The Chancellor hit back by saying enterprise has “never been something of interest for the Labour Party” as Ms Patel entered a kind of rhapsody.

All sides know Mr Hunt’s “budget of growth” will be judged by how it salvages the Tories' standing with voters: Five months after Mr Sunak promised a fresh start, the party continues to trail Labour in the polls.

Updated: March 16, 2023, 12:47 PM
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