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UK Politics: Hammond under pressure to deliver mission impossible budget

Blue skies over Westminster but the Tories face deep division over the economy and Brexit
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The Conservative party is in dire straits and all eyes are on Philip Hammond as he prepares to deliver his budget. Max Liu thinks it's mission impossible for the Chancellor.

"The Tories trail Labour in the polls, with Jeremy Corbyn's party [1.93] to win the next general election, and May is [1.91] to leave Downing Street in 2018."

Has 2017 been the worst year ever for the Conservative Party? It didn't start badly, with Theresa May triggering Article 50 in March and setting the date for the UK's exit from the European Union. At that point, the Tories were as many as 18 points ahead of Labour in some polls. But one month later, the PM called a general election, saying she wanted to win a big majority in Parliament so that she could "crush the saboteurs." The "saboteurs" included pro-Remain MPs and EU officials who wanted to scupper Brexit.

As we know, May didn't get her big majority. In fact, she lost her small majority in a stunning act of self-sabotage and crushed her own ambitions to do gown in history as a strong and unifying PM. Now, as we approach the end of 2017, the Tories trail Labour in the polls, with Jeremy Corbyn's party [1.93] to win the next general election, May [1.91] to leave Downing Street in 2018 and another general election next year trading at [3.7].

Of course, the Tories have had other bad years: in 1997, Labour wiped them out in a general election, winning a 179-seat majority, and there were times during John Major's government of the mid-1990s when the party lurched from crisis to scandal to crisis. And of course, some Tories will argue that any year in power is better than any year out of power.

But it's hard to think of another year when the Tories imploded so spectacularly. This week's "Brexit mutineers" cover story in the Telegraph showed that the divisions among British conservatives are deep and volatile.

Can Hammond help the Conservatives end their bad year on a high?

Philip Hammond is an unlikely hero, even among many Tories, but could the Chancellor deliver a budget this week to unite his party and engage voters? Hammond isn't known for surprises and he's spent the past week saying there are "no magic bullets" in the government's economic armoury.

Housing and technology are expected to be at the centre of Hammond's budget, which will be delivered on Wednesday. The Chancellor has been challenged by MPs in the his own party, like Sajid Javid, who wants him to inject £50 billion into home building and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell who says Hammond needs to deliver an emergency budget to solve crises in health, public services and housing. He's also under pressure to lift public sector wage cap, invest in schools and solve issues with benefit changes.

It could be that Hammond faces an impossible task. Voters are tired of austerity and want to see the government spending money to alleviate the country's problems. To be fair to Hammond, this is the legacy of his predecessor, George Osborne, whose cuts to public spending are really starting to affect people's everyday lives.

On the other hand, Hammond is wary of loosening the purse strings as the economy is already slowing down and likely to face bigger problems after Brexit. It is this kind of caution, perhaps, that means the Tories are still ahead of Labour, when it comes to managing the economy, by two points in this weekend's Opinium poll.

Bettors don't believe in May's Brexit deadline

While Hammond faces an impossible task with his budget, there are those who argue that the UK has embarked on mission impossible with Brexit. Hammond said on Sunday that he believes Britain will strike a deal with the EU before Brexit. Hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, however, believe Britain should be prepared to walk away without a deal.

This week, Theresa May will try again to persuade MPs to back a bill to fix the date of Brexit. The PM believes that would strengthen Britain's negotiating hand. Bettors, like many MPs, aren't convinced and make it [1.73] that we'll still be in the EU after March 2019.

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