Sajid Javid is preparing a hollow, compromised budget. Has a chancellor ever been less powerful?

James Moore
Reuters

“This will be the first Budget after leaving the EU,” said Sajid Javid, who has the title of Chancellor of the Exchequer, but is in reality little more than a PR man for Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings.

He was announcing 6 November as the big day. It is of course a sham.

With that announcement, he was conveniently forgetting the Benn Act, which will extend the UK’s EU membership if Johnson can’t get a deal.

Given that the prime minister has to find something that the EU, the Democratic Unionist Party, and sufficient numbers of Tory Europe fundamentalists can all sign up to, I think that’s unlikely, regardless of the noise (one day we’re in the final circle of hell, the next nirvana is in sight).

But PR people have to toe their bosses’ line so perhaps we should forgive Javid his hyperbole.

He's in a truly terrible position.

There has never been a less powerful chancellor in modern British political history.

Even the really bad ones, like Norman Lamont, who sang in his bath when the pound crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, had good people around them.

Crucially, the rest of government also had to pay due heed to the Treasury, which was the most important department in government. If ministers didn’t, there would be a high price to be paid when the sweeties were doled out.

Under Johnson, that’s gone. Having denigrated the Treasury as “the heart of Remain” he and Cummings have neutered it. The has created a degree of chaos in Whitehall; it has torn up all the usual rules.

That’s something the gangsters at the top seem to want and enjoy. But it’s not a sustainable situation. While it may frustrate and exasperate prime ministers, the Treasury’s power is necessary for good functioning of government.

All the same, let’s look at what are we going to get with this “first post-Brexit budget”.

Well, we won’t get a budget at all if Johnson finds a way to contrive Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal because the Treasury, sorry, Johnson and Cummings, will have to assess the economic impact of that and how best to respond to a developing crisis.

In that event, there will simply be an “economic statement”. Goodness knows what that will involve. How do you put a positive gloss on “we’re in deep doo doo? We’re throwing money here, and we’re throwing money there, and, can we still get valium in through Dover? Failing that, can we commission a plane to fly us some in?

Let’s say the chancellor does end up at the despatch box for something more substantial than that, either during an extension or after a deal has been signed.

As always during these events, there will be a battery of economic experts and commentators lining up to look at the forecasts, to pick through the details, and to offer up weighty analysis of what’s been presented.

Particular attention will be paid to what’s happened to the government rules that call for borrowing to be held below 2 per cent of national income, or £46bn in real money.

Thing is, this is not a government that’s interested in rules or reality, or even money really, at least not in the way previous Conservative governments used to be. Perhaps it’s because this isn’t really a Conservative government at all. It’s the hard right in Conservative clothes.

The only analysis you’ll really need I can offer you right now. We the electorate will be offered up a bribe. A big, fat, bribe with our own money, paid for on the never-never. It’ll be the sort of budget the Tory Party for years criticised Labour for promising, a cynical attempt to neuter the appeal of Corbyn and McDonnell for those who care about public services, particularly education and the NHS.

Good luck getting it through parliament, mind. All the opposition parties will vote against because that’s what opposition parties are supposed to do. Some of the Tories who got the whip withdrawn might be inclined to do that as well, because they’re honest to goodness Conservatives.

Were this a normal, sensible government, Javid might be quite good in No11. He’s a former banker who knows numbers. He has brains, which is more than can be said for a depressingly high number of his cabinet colleagues.

But this is not a normal, sensible government. So with his “first post-Brexit budget” he’s being asked to cast his chief attributes aside in favour of polishing up a pile of cynical yuck. That’s something he’s not very good at. You only need to look at his last big House of Commons performance, which was truly awful, to see that.

It’s early days, but remember you read it here: I wouldn’t put money on him holding on to No11 for long if Johnson manages to hold on to No10.