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Hunt passes pensioners on the way to the nursery

Some readers may have been given the impression recently that the Conservative party is a quasi-religious cult, dedicated to the reverence of its chosen people — or as they are known in the party, “pensioners”. But wait, what was this? A makeover?

Wednesday’s Budget bravely acknowledged that not everyone in Britain remembers the death of Winston Churchill. Jeremy Hunt, the 56-year-old chancellor, with a sprightly demeanour and a full head of hair, stood up in the House of Commons and said he wanted “to reform our childcare system”!

It made sense. Hunt understands how difficult it is to clean up after toddlers, having taken over as chancellor under Liz Truss. He was determined that others should have an easier time, with 30 hours of free childcare a week. Imagine if someone had taken care of Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng for 30 hours a week: the lettuce wouldn’t have stood a chance. Let’s hope that young couples did not, erm, celebrate Hunt’s beneficence immediately: the free hours won’t kick in fully until September 2025.

In an ideal world, the Conservatives might also fund regular free childcare for children aged 5 to 18. They could call it “school”. But I guess they’ll get round to solving the teachers’ strikes eventually.

Back in the Commons, Hunt was taking his revolution further. He actually wanted fewer pensioners. Electoral suicide for the Conservatives, but good news for doctors and wealthy professionals, who were at risk of maxing out their pensions allowances if they kept earning. It’s all hands on deck — so if a huge bung for the rich is what it takes to keep them in the workforce, so be it.

So overall the Budget felt like a disguised call for help, like one of those Tannoy announcements that asks if anyone familiar with the spread of Ebola would mind reporting to the second floor. Hunt didn’t say that business investment had flatlined since 2016, and that living standards were in the process of falling 6 per cent. But he didn’t not say these things either.

True, growth forecasts were a bit better, but when economists don’t predict a recession — that’s when you need to get really worried. So Hunt calmly but seriously announced new incentives for business investment, to replace the underwhelming super-deduction. He has watered down plans for enterprise zones but still claims to have identified “12 potential Canary Wharfs”, which presumably will become actual Canary Wharfs as soon as they’ve had their souls surgically replaced with a branch of Slug and Lettuce.

There were a few gimmicks, including a freeze in draught beer duty that is apparently only possible now Britain has left the EU. Thanks to the “Brexit pub guarantee”, draught beer will have up to 11p less tax per pint than supermarket beer. Glad to know it was all worth it.

Otherwise Hunt barely mentioned Brexit at all. Instead he tried to rescue some long forgotten Conservative figures, borrowing a phrase from George Osborne and tossing praise on Michael Heseltine. “Other parties run out of money,” he scoffed, encouraging his comrades to forget all about that time in September when they nearly blew up the bond markets. I’m not sure you can boast about sticking to the plan, when you’ve only been sticking to it for four months. But Hunt did.

Much of the speech was taken up with the chancellor’s strategy of “the four Es”. If I tell you the last E is Everywhere, you can see the problem. The only explanation is that someone was asked at a focus group what it would take for them to vote Tory again, and answered four Es, and now we’re stuck with it.

The most important E is the election, scheduled for next year. The Conservatives don’t seem to have much chance of winning, given that taxes are high and public services are poor, but at least they’ve remembered who a few more of the voters are.

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