AT JUST 68 pages, the spring budget Philip Hammond published on March 8th was less than half the length of last year’s. Blessedly short on the gimmicks favoured by many of his predecessors in the Treasury, its most significant chapter was on official forecasts. The economy has done much better than expected since the Brexit referendum last June (see article): it is forecast to grow by 2% this year, up from the 1.4% predicted in November and well ahead of the recession many feared.

Yet the modest, good-news budget got a dreadful reception. Mr Hammond announced higher taxes for self-employed people, which broke a manifesto pledge and infuriated an important Conservative constituency. The criticism is unjustified. The tax plan makes economic sense, and with Brexit on the horizon it is right to fund any spending increases with tax rather than more borrowing. The bigger worry was the chancellor’s repeated refrain that urgent questions, from housing to health care, were still under review—a reminder of how many matters the government has yet to tackle.

Revenge of the white van man

With Labour in steep decline under an unpopular leader—Mr Hammond aptly compared the party to a driverless vehicle—the Tories enjoy unusual freedom. The chancellor used this to raise the national-insurance contributions (NICs) paid by self-employed people, who pay less than employees (see article). Businessfolk pointed out that they lack benefits such as sick pay and parental leave that employees enjoy. They have less than half a point: the main reason for the discount was their worse state-pension entitlement, which was fixed last year. Mr Hammond has promised to improve their other benefits. And employees will continue to pay even more NICs via their employers. Equalising their tax treatment will slow the slide towards self-employment for tax purposes. It should go further.

Amid the outrage it was easy to forget that the tax raid was worth less than 0.1% of public spending. It is on the big questions that the government looks less convincing. Eight months into Theresa May’s term, urgent matters that were crying out for answers last summer are still being put off. The question of how to treat the “gig economy” and other new forms of work is under review until the summer. The social-care system, which is close to breakdown, will feature in a green paper later in the year. The touchy matter of how to set business rates, a tax on firms that is in need of reform, is out for consultation. On sustaining the creaking National Health Service the budget threw only crumbs. Because the government lacks answers, the budget resorted to emergency cash instead: extra money for social care; a fund for local authorities to help out firms struggling with rates.

It is better to get big reforms right than to rush in. By the end of the year the government may have come up with good answers to Britain’s problems. But policy reviews under Mrs May have so far been anticlimactic. Last month a long-delayed white paper on the chronic shortage of housing, an area with plenty of good, but unpopular, solutions, failed to endorse the big ideas needed to boost housebuilding. In January a document outlining a new “industrial strategy”, which Mrs May flagged as a signature policy in the first days of her premiership, amounted to little. So did earlier promises of revolutions in railways, prisons and more.

A good test will be how the government responds to the furore over self-employment. It is a sound idea which means only minor pain for a small number of mainly Tory voters. If Mrs May flinches at the unjustified outrage it has caused, it is hard to see her taking on bigger challenges.