Kwasi Kwarteng sat nonchalantly in the Commons, head back, legs splayed, almost as though he was reclining on a deck chair on a sun-kissed beach.
For a man about to deliver a speech which could arguably decide the fate of the Government – if not the entire country – the Chancellor was one cool hombre. All that was missing was a rum cocktail adorned with a jaunty umbrella beside him, a bottle of Piz Buin and a dog-eared copy of the latest Jeffrey Archer potboiler.
Such a lackadaisical demeanour was all the more impressive when it turned out he was about to unleash the brashest and boldest fiscal announcement in decades. A veritable bonfire of taxes, sending great flaming embers of regulation and red tape fluttering over Westminster.
Gung-ho Tories greeted this crash course in Kwasinomics with a sonic boom of cheers. More cautious types gawped nervously
His so-called ‘mini-Budget’ was not so much a rabbit-out-the-hat trick than a series of Paul Daniels-style eye poppers which left much of his audience stunned. Not all of them for the same reason.
Gung-ho Tories greeted this crash course in Kwasinomics with a sonic boom of cheers. More cautious types gawped nervously. Sajid Javid leaned forward, staring vacantly at the floor. Former party chairman Oliver Dowden, a man so frugal one imagines him reusing his teabags, turned a worrying shade of green. Will Kwarteng’s plans work? Who knows. But as debuts go, this was a gargantuan statement of intent.
The Chancellor was summoned to his feet by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle at 9.34am. The chamber was full but far from chocka. Word was government whips had advised some of their more bolshy MPs to head off for an early weekend.
‘This is a new approach for a new era,’ Kwarteng announced confidently. While his predecessor Rishi Sunak could have done with a beer crate to stand on, Kwarteng’s vast frame dwarfed the dispatch box, his fingers clasping it tightly, as though attempting to strangle a particularly stubborn battery chicken.
The Chancellor was summoned to his feet by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle at 9.34am. The chamber was full but far from chocka
Prime Minister Liz Truss with Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, who delivered his mini-budget on Friday
The voice too is deep and strong, like a fine marinade of armagnac and cigars. Even when Kwarteng reeled off the details of his vast relief package for domestic energy bills he almost sounded soothing.
As it was a mere mini-Budget, the Chancellor was given only half an hour to speak. But goodness he crammed enough in.
Bit by bit, the spendaholic tax-and-spend splurge of the Johnson era was consigned to the waste-disposal unit. Out with the hated national insurance rise. Hooray! Out, too, with the proposed rise in duty on beer and cider. Double hooray!
There would also be VAT-free shopping for overseas visitors. That sound you might have heard as he said that? Oh, just the collective popping of champagne corks in Bond Street’s fancy emporiums.
Nodding approvingly alongside him was brainy Levelling-up Secretary Simon Clarke, his spectacle lenses as thick as two Coca-Cola bottles.
On the other side was Prime Minister Liz Truss looking impressively polished considering she’d just touched down from New York.
As the Chancellor continued to lay out his daring economic vision, Labour MPs’ grunts and guffaws grew ever louder
Of her predecessor Boris Johnson there was no sign. Absent too was Rishi Sunak. Manning his Yorkshire constituency, perhaps. Or slumming it at his third home in sunny California?
Meanwhile, as the Chancellor continued to lay out his daring economic vision, Labour MPs’ grunts and guffaws grew ever louder. There was particularly loud mooing at the much-trailed pledge to scrap the cap on bankers’ bonuses.
Toward the rear of the chamber, noted crypto-communist John McDonnell resembled a man who had just had a particularly piqant gorgonzola placed beneath his nostrils. No reaction, I noticed, from City kingpin Ian Blackford. Then came the juice. ‘Mr Speaker, we come to the issue of personal taxation,’ Kwarteng said. ‘We believe it is an important principle that people should keep more of the money they earn.’
His voice by now was beginning to croak. Were it Budget day, this was the point at which a large Scotch and soda would have come in handy.
Dividends tax was also for the chop. A hefty cut too to stamp duty. But the big zinger was the 5 per cent cut in the top rate of tax to 40 per cent.
The initial reaction from Tory backbenchers though was surprisingly muted. It’s possible that Kwarteng didn’t tee it up enough. Either that, or MPs were nervy at having to sell it to their more hard-up constituents.
‘An admission of 12 years of economic failure,’ was the verdict of Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, in one of her flatter – and quieter – Common performances.
Had Rachel’s advisers told her to dial it down a bit? Some of the deafer members will at least be able to switch their hearing aids back on.
To an extent, Reeves was right, of course. For far too long, our economy has staggered along, marching limply to the beat of Treasury boffins and all their softly, softly orthodoxy.
In Kwarteng yesterday one sensed a willingness to cast off its shackles and throw caution to the wind. Westminster’s tectonic plates are well and truly shifting.
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