The Government seems to have sailed into calmer waters, and at the helm of the public finances can be seen the reassuring figure of Philip Hammond.
No one has yet ventured to accuse him of delivering an exciting Spring Statement. Some of his predecessors could not help being interesting. The greatest of them, William Gladstone, invested whatever he was doing with tremendous moral and spiritual significance, as in this famous passage from a speech at Edinburgh in 1879:
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer should boldly uphold economy in detail; and it is the mark of a chicken-hearted Chancellor when he shrinks from upholding economy in detail, when because it is a question of only two or three thousand pounds, he says it is no matter. He is ridiculed, no doubt, for what is called candle-ends and cheese-parings, but he is not worth his salt if he is not ready to save what are meant by candle-ends and cheese-parings in the cause of the country. No Chancellor of the Exchequer is worth his salt who makes his own popularity either his consideration, or any consideration at all, in administering the public purse. In my opinion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the trusted and confidential steward of the public. He is under a sacred obligation with regard to all that he consents to spend.”
A sacred obligation! That is not how most of Gladstone’s successors have spoken of the matter, and Hammond has the sense not to attempt such rhetoric. It is not that he dares to be dull, but that he cannot help being dull. He is an underwhelming figure, who let it be known in advance that his would be an undramatic statement, and proceeded to deliver what he had promised, albeit with the addition of one or two self-regarding jokes.
Nick Macpherson, who served as Permanent Secretary at the Treasury under three Chancellors, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and George Osborne, tweeted:
“Sensible OBR forecast. Sensible statement by Mr Hammond. Good to see public debt could fall next year. Need headroom against future shocks.”
That is surely right. Calm waters seldom last for long, and the debt-laden ship must be made as seaworthy as possible before the next storm blows up. For this task, one could find much worse Chancellors than Hammond.
Labour applies a striking lack of pressure. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are not Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Corbyn and McDonnell should be auditioning to be the next Prime Minister and Chancellor, yet even they give little sign of believing this will really happen.
Corbyn generally ducks the task of challenging May on economic questions. McDonnell denounces “austerity”, but does not seem to get very far beyond these denunciations, and yesterday sounded irrelevant.
Brown, it may be recalled, used to talk in a somewhat Gladstonian way about “prudence with a purpose” – a phrase which indicated that he recognised the need for a degree of austerity. The public respected his admission (later, alas, abandoned) that the public finances needed to be kept under control.
Hammond does not face that kind of competition. He can set out to build a reputation for economic competence – a vital attribute for a Conservative government – without fear of his lightweight opponents on the Opposition front bench. His seriousness and professionalism make them look frivolous. His real enemies sit behind him, and the real battleground is still Brexit.