A soggy Budget Day mixes metaphors and messages

Village Green at Westminster
Image caption The Village Green at Westminster: Torrential rain before the Spring Budget

This was the soggy vision of Westminster's famous village green when I arrived for Philip Hammond's first and last Spring Budget before he switches to Autumn Budgets and Spring Statements.

I should have known the torrential rain would signal what was to follow.

We may have expected a firework display for the government's vision of the Midlands Engine, but in the event it felt more akin to a damp squib, promising as it did that Mr Hammond's Midlands Engine Strategy would be announced in Dudley the morning after the afternoon before.

And when he did promise it, the normally sure-footed chancellor uncharacteristically muddled his lines.

'Mixed metaphors'

It wasn't just the sentences and tenses that were mixed.

Metaphors got the treatment as well. Ahead of the statement, Theresa May predicted the budget would demonstrate "a strong hand on the fiscal tiller" and "put the wheels in motion for growth and productivity".

Again and again Mr Hammond warned how dangerous it would be to ease up on deficit reduction.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Accountants Ernst and Young accuse The Chancellor of preferring the Northern Powerhouse (which got £90m for roads in the budget) compared to the Midlands Engine (£23m)

But despite that fiscal discipline he still found £23m to ease pinch points on the West Midlands' roads, which as any of us who travel around our region know to our cost, are among the biggest blockages in the way of improving our economic competitiveness.

Accountants Ernst and Young compared this with the £90m promised for roads in the north and accused Mr Hammond of continuing to prefer the Northern Powerhouse above the Midlands Engine.

At least our local authorities can bid for a share of £690m to ease traffic congestion across the country as a whole.

'Business rate relief'

As for other Midlands highlights, the local business community heaved at least a gentle sigh of relief when Mr Hammond outlined £435m worth of business rate relief, following a storm of protest.

Midlands Today reported recently from Ludlow where publicans and restaurateurs warned increases in their business rates could put them out of business altogether.

The government intends business rates will account for 100% of local authority funding by 2020.

The business community complains the rates, based on the value of their properties rather than the turnover of their businesses, present them with a sudden hike following the first revaluation for seven years.

In promising to cushion the impact and to ensure subsequent revaluations are completed more frequently, Mr Hammond was clearly responding to the strong representations he has received from right across the House of Commons.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Hospitals in Coventry, Birmingham and Stoke are at the wrong end of the league table for what ministers prefer to call "delayed discharges"

By now The Chancellor had been on his feet for almost an hour and I had to start preparing to tear myself away to that famous Westminster College Green to deliver my own budget report live into Midlands Today's 1.30pm news.

Already I was rehearsing my line about his much-vaunted fiscal discipline and the deaf ear he was therefore turning to demands from opposition MPs, and not a few Tories too, for extra funding for Social Care to ease hospital bed-blocking deemed "unacceptable" by his cabinet colleague, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

'Delayed discharges'

Latest figures show hospitals in Coventry, Birmingham and Stoke are at the wrong end of the league table for what ministers prefer to call "delayed discharges".

Again, Mr Hammond showed his listening ear, as virtually his final flourish, he announced an extra £2bn for Health and Social Care over the next three years.

For the Liberal Democrats (remember them?) Norman Lamb said that as sticking plaster solutions go, this one "does a disservice to sticking plasters".

By now you will have realised we were moving from the statement itself to the welter of comment that always follows it.

First off the mark, as always, the Leader of the Opposition whose instant response is, by common consent among all parties from successive governments and oppositions, the most difficult speech of the Parliamentary year. Jeremy Corbyn accused the Government of "cutting the living standards of the many to pay for the tax cuts of the few".

Discuss!

And discuss it we will because now begins my hunt for suitable guests to talk to on Midlands Today. Join me at 6.30 tonight, Wednesday 8 March 2017.