Philip Hammond digs deep as he explains his NICs U-turn

John Crace
Phil ‘The Undertaker’ Hammond, aka the chancellor of the exchequer. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The phone call had come through just after eight in the morning while Phil “The Undertaker” Hammond was eating breakfast. It was the prime minister ordering him to bury Class 4 NICs. He had tried telling her that doing a U-turn on your only real budget measure less than a week after it had been announced made him and the government look hopelessly incompetent, but Theresa wasn’t having any of it. The Tory backbenchers were on her back. The Daily Mail was on her back. And now she was on his back.

Six hours later The Undertaker rather sheepishly arrived in the Commons to try to explain how it was that, though he still absolutely stood by his budget because it was his budget that was his, he now wanted to fundamentally change it because although he hadn’t broken any promises in the Conservative party manifesto, as that’s not the sort of thing he would ever dream of doing, he had in fact broken the promises he had made in the Conservative party manifesto.

It had been absolutely right to raise NICs and that’s why he wasn’t doing it. And no, before anyone asked, he hadn’t worked out how to fill the £2bn black hole that had just opened up in the country’s finances. Give him another six months. Maybe changing to one budget a year wasn’t such a good plan after all.

Not even Jeremy Corbyn’s hapless efforts to take advantage of the government’s uselessness at prime minister’s questions could cheer The Undertaker up. He was a proud man. A vain man. A man who still kept his Mr Funeral Director of the Year 1978 award on his mantlepiece. A man who sensed he was now living on borrowed time. A man both dead and undead. He’d screwed up at the first hurdle. Another cock-up and he would be a goner.

The Undertaker only knew one way. When in doubt, keep digging. “It wasn’t either myself or the prime minister who realised we had broken the Tory party manifesto which he hadn’t broken,” he said. “It was the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.” Great. So neither the chancellor nor the prime minister had a clue what was in their own manifesto? “No, no, no,” said The Undertaker hurriedly. “What I really meant was that when I had leaked that we were planning to break our promises to the media ahead of the budget, no one had raised an eyebrow, so I thought it was all going to be OK.”

By now only The Undertaker’s head was still showing above the grave he had just dug for himself, and Labour backbenchers were queueing up to deliver the coup de grace that their front bench had failed to land. The Undertaker’s misery was only compounded by the support from his own benches. Being told he was a brave man could only mean one thing. There were a lot of MPs who were mighty pissed off they had spent the past week defending a crap policy that had now been ditched. The Undertaker made one last appeal. “I want to restore the faith and trust of the British people,” he mumbled, dimly aware he had just done the exact opposite “especially as we embark on the process of leaving the EU”.

He might not have been quite so quick to say that if he had listened to David Davis give evidence to the Brexit select committee earlier in the day. Therapists often like to see their patients first thing in the morning because they are then at their most undefended and aren’t awake enough to portray themselves in a good light. It certainly worked a treat with the Brexit secretary, who appears to have aged five years in the last few weeks. Though that could have something to do with the large quantities of sodium pentothal he had just taken.

The Treasury select committee chair, Hilary Benn, warmed up with a bit of free association. Did no deal mean WTO tariff barriers? “Yes,” said Davis. Would there be border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland? “Yes.” Would the EU/US open skies agreement be dead in the water? “Yes.” Would we lose passporting rights of financial services? “Yes.” Did this mean that the foreign secretary was idiotic to say that dropping out of the EU on WTO terms would be fine? “Yes.” Whoops. He had just landed Boris in it. Still, Boris wouldn’t have thought twice about knifing him.

Benn then went for the throat. Had Davis made any calculation of the exact costs of leaving the EU on WTO terms? “God no,” said Davis breezily. “I know how it’s going to work out. I just haven’t quantified it.” Every member of the committee – even the leavers – stared into the abyss. Davis had just admitted the government was saying no deal would be better than a bad deal when it didn’t even know the cost of no deal. A parish council wouldn’t get away with that level of unaccountability. Davis shrugged. There was something liberating about telling the truth. Why not let the country know that the chancellor hadn’t a clue about the economy and Brexit was heading for the rocks? It wasn’t as if there was an effective opposition to stop them.