It’s hard to think of a Spring or Autumn Statement which has been less-discussed before, during or indeed after it took place than today’s. Ordinarily, the preceding weeks are filled with speculation and belated lobbying, the Sunday papers contain pre-trails of policy changes, then the day itself opens with an eery calm before the Chancellor kicks off 72 hours of chaotic scrutiny and debate. In latter years, that has particularly involved a search for both a ‘nasty’ hidden in the text and for a catchy description of it (Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, and so on).
Today’s Spring Statement, however, almost took us all by surprise. More than a few people failed to spot Hammond’s big(ish) day coming up at all. It seems unlikely to dominate tomorrow’s newspapers, still less to obsess the press pack for the next couple of days or even be the major driver of the markets.
In part, that’s because of the dominance of Parliament’s ongoing struggle to honour the outcome of the EU referendum. Last night’s vote, the votes expected this evening, and yet more votes tomorrow on the question of extension are inevitably going to be box office events.
But it’s also about the reality of the Chancellor’s position. Without clarity on how – and indeed whether, if some MPs get their way – we will leave the EU, what meaning did the Statement really have? We don’t know the trading relationship the UK will have with the EU. We don’t know whether we will be free to forge our own trade deals with the rest of the world or not. We don’t know whether this or future Chancellors will be able to vary this country’s regulations over large swathes of the economy, never mind what reforms they might choose if they are allowed to do so. We don’t even know whether Philip Hammond will shortly be posting a cheque for £39 billion to Brussels or not.
Given that context, how much of the Statement ever stood a chance of really meaning anything? Economic forecasts are dicey at the best of times, and Treasury forecasts even more so. What’s more, even good ones rely on assumptions – and the Chancellor is operating without reliable assumptions truly being available to him. He already isn’t the type of orator who comes equipped with a pre-installed exclamation mark, but the circumstances offered poor foundations to make much headway at all, even if the Prime Minister wasn’t hogging the headlines with her ongoing travails.
In the event, Hammond’s fiscal moment was subsumed by the Government’s Brexit PR strategy, warning of the consequences of failing to pass the deal while holding out a “dividend” as an incentive for voting it through. I found myself thinking back to his original announcement that the Budget would be moved to the Autumn, and Spring’s statement reduced to merely a response to OBR forecasts. It would, he told the House in 2016, be “no major fiscal event”. He was certainly right about that.