Why did Philip Hammond unexpectedly cut taxes for high earners a year early, in a budget supposedly all about ending austerity? And why won’t Labour, for all its ferocious rhetoric about championing the many not the few, pledge to reverse them?

At first glance, the question seems almost too obvious to need an answer. Everyone likes free money. And since richer people tend to vote Tory, giving away money to richer people (nearly half the benefit of yesterday’s move to bring forward next year’s planned hike in allowances goes to the top 10% of households) tends to be a cynical but successful way of buying Tory votes. Standing between people and all that free money, conversely, tends to be electoral suicide for Labour. Which is why some at Westminster even wondered if this budget was laying the ground for a snap election before too long.

But this morning brings another, arguably more worrying possibility: that this is a chancellor quietly adopting the brace position ahead of a turbulent Brexit. Economies can go downhill extremely fast when people alarmed at what might be around the corner become afraid to spend their money, and service economies like Britain’s are perhaps particularly vulnerable to the jittery middle classes deciding to economise on their morning latte, skip the foreign holiday this year or cancel plans to re-do the kitchen. When needled by the Today programme about whether a bad Brexit would render all his carefully laid plans null and void, Hammond retorted that “very often a shock to the economy actually requires a boost to spending in the short term to support demand and keep the economy going”. Is he putting cash into the pockets of those most likely to spend it (as opposed to those who actually need it) at least partly in anticipation of a potentially serious economic shock?

Understanding why a chancellor might have done something isn’t the same as condoning it and it should be said that none of this makes spending £2.7bn on tax cuts, rather than on alleviating poverty, morally right. If this really is about readying the lifeboats ahead of hitting an iceberg, then – as on the Titanic – it’s the richest passengers who have just been given the best chance of getting through it unscathed and the poorer ones who’ll risk drowning in the hold.

Grasping what’s really going on beneath the surface of a budget is useful, however, because it tells us something about what a government thinks is coming down the road. Hammond may be forced to mince his words in public, for fear of upsetting Brexiters who can’t bear to hear that they may have shot themselves (along with the rest of the nation) in the foot. But quietly, this budget also delivered a significant increase in departmental contingency funds for Brexit, presumably in response to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s blunt warning earlier this month about the “severe short term impact” of any “abrupt and disorderly” departure from the EU. It was striking too that John McDonnell explained away Labour’s decision not to try to reverse the tax cut, despite it contradicting everything a social justice movement ought to stand for, on the grounds that it could “inject demand” into the economy at a difficult time.

Cynics may suspect the decision has more to do with electoral pragmatism but on the face of it, both main parties seem to accept that lifeboats may shortly be needed. Whether you love tax cuts or hate them, voters are conditioned to seeing them as a sign that good times are back again. But in keeping with the tradition that Brexit turns all the normal laws of political gravity upside down, it’s not impossible that this time the reverse is true.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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