Being Philip Hammond, or indeed any Chancellor of the Exchequer, must be a bit like being a magician, constantly expected to meet the needs of the audience (or government departments, delete as applicable), often expected to produce something out of nothing, and expected to continually keep the everyone (voters) happy.
With the Budget rapidly approaching, the Conservatives have a dilemma on their hands. The consequence of the Office for Budget Responsibility being too optimistic in its forecasting is the Treasury has significantly less money to play with than it thought, hoped or wished for. That means less cash available to smooth any bumps on the Brexit road, which is turn means the Chancellor is operating in the political equivalent of a straightjacket when it comes to an ability to loosen the public purse strings.
These problems are compounded by the political reality that the Tories have taken a battering in recent months. With his most successful Prime Minister’s Questions to date yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are genuine contenders for an election. Indeed, if voters headed to the polls tomorrow, it might be Mr Corbyn and not Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street setting out his vision for the future.
Central to Labour’s renaissance over the past six months has been its ability to engage and appeal to younger voters. Tory strategists have correctly concluded that, at least at this moment in time, the Party is losing this particular battle in the same way you’d expect San Marino to lose a football match against the world champions. With that knowledge comes the need to up the Tory game to engage the 18-35 demographic.
This is what’s prompted speculation Philip Hammond’s Budget on 22 November could include a suite of measures to support young people that could include cuts to National Insurance, with older voters footing the bill. Cue outrage among some within the Tory Party akin to someone telling Nigel Farage that, actually, we’ll stay in Europe, thanks very much.
If that’s the Treasury’s plan, then it is, as critics have suggested, a dangerous one for the Conservatives. With the so-called ‘grey vote’ being very much on the blue side of the Despatch Box, the Tories risk biting the proverbial hand that feeds them, risking their electoral prospects for 2022 (or earlier). Meanwhile, a blatant appeal to younger voters would suggest Labour is dictating the agenda, without any guarantee of success.
But, what’s clear is that something has to be done. And whether the Government decides to do it and expect older voters to foot the bill, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting setting on which to make a statement than the Budget.
An IPPR report yesterday highlighted wealth discrepancies between age groups – and it wasn’t millennials/the younger generation who came off better. Fewer than half are now expected to own their own home before the age of 45. And while unemployment might be falling, wages have remained largely flat. The short version is it’s tough out there for younger voters.
The criticism of a Budget rebalancing paid for by older voters smacks of short-term political and electoral expediency. But the fact is, whether on 22 November, next week or next year, the Tories have to do something pretty quickly. Otherwise Labour will be able to continue to win over the 18-25 vote. And those voters will, one day, become the grey vote. Then the Tories risk losing out on all counts.