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Is today's safe and dull budget dangerous for May?

Is a dull budget bad news for Theresa May? Credit: PA

If there is a story in today's budget it may be that there isn't a big story, and that might not be good - in that this government is desperately in need of a "narrative" (to use that awful cliche of modern political marketing) other than the chaos of Brexit talks.

Most Tory MPs would desperately like something positive to tell their supporters - the more so in the hours after hearing that Theresa May and Philip Hammond have found £40bn to potentially settle the Brexit divorce bill with the EU, which so many of them hate.

To be clear, there won't be a slew of money for public sector pay rises. At most, there will be modest additional cash for nurses, but only tied to some kind of "reform".

And there'll be some extra money for the NHS in general, though less than its boss in England wants.

Equally a select few local authorities will enjoy some relaxation of constraints on their ability to borrow to build council houses, and there'll be additional support for housing associations (which will be more generous than for councils, because the Treasury has a higher opinion of housing associations than of local authorities).

But the overall boost to the supply of affordable housing, which most Tories would concede is desperately needed, will be modest.

Now as I said previously, the Chancellor will succeed - in the judgement of the Office for Budget Responsibility - in hitting his target of reducing the structural deficit, annual borrowing, to less than 2% of GDP or national income by 2020-1.

Against a backdrop of growth in the economy and tax revenues expected to be more sluggish than expected a year ago - due in part to a downgrade in forecasts of productivity growth - meeting that target could not be taken for granted.

It requires the Chancellor to put up taxes a bit - but not so much as to cause the kind of parliamentary rebellion that forced him in the spring to abandon his plan to raise the national insurance rate that applies to the self-employed.

Now what he and the Treasury wanted to do was significantly reduce the threshold at which VAT is payable, from annual income of £85,000 a year to nearer £25,000.

Which would be a big story.

But it definitely won't happen, because it would be seen as punishing lots of small businesses (who would be seen as natural Tories - though not all are).

That said, until just a few hours ago, I was confident Hammond would cut the VAT threshold to around £75,000.

Now I think even that may not happen, such is the prime minister's fear that her own MPs would be furious.

My sense is that 10 Downing Street stamped on even that modest move to widen the tax base.

Philip Hammond preparing his speech in his office in Downing Street Credit: PA

That said, the VAT threshold definitely won't be up-rated by inflation - so a few more self-employed people and businesses will be forced to register for VAT than would normally be the case.

That is a form of raising revenues by stealth.

Similarly I won't be at all surprised if other direct and indirect tax thresholds are frozen. Because at a time when inflation is 3%, such a freeze would raise quite a lot of money.

Equally I would expect some kind of action or perhaps just a nod towards increasing Vehicle Excise Duty on the most polluting of diesel cars and vans (which would be a serious pain in the exhaust for the fabled and feared White Van Man).

In the round, however, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the most dull budget of the 60 odd (if you include autumn statements) that it’s been my joy and privilege to cover in an absurdly long career as a hack.

Which points to this government's most serious weakness.

It desperately needs to do big, bold and imaginative things, to prove to voters it has a vision and is in charge.

But with its non-existent parliamentary majority, and the permanent threat of revolting MPs, it can't do anything big, let alone bold.