Philip Hammond used to pride himself on being ‘spreadsheet Phil’, the Chancellor who didn’t waste his time on politics because he preferred crunching the numbers. But today’s Spring Statement showed that he has learned the value of being overtly political.
It was, as we had expected, an economic statement that was rather thin on the announcements. But what was striking was how heavy this speech was on the politics. Unlike David Cameron and George Osborne, the Tories under Theresa May haven’t spent much time making the argument for fiscal restraint – and the effect has been that Labour has enjoyed much more sympathy for its calls for higher public spending than it did under Ed Miliband. So today the Chancellor spent longer talking about the threat of Labour’s plans than he did about his own announcements. He warned about ‘Labour’s next economic train wreck’, and detailed how much Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s spending pledges would cost. Later, in response to McDonnell, Hammond told the Chamber that ‘we have to win this argument’ because to lose it would be to hit those at the bottom hardest.
In a sign of how vulnerable the Tories feel at the moment, Hammond also mounted a much more passionate defence of the market economy, telling MPs that it ’embraces talent and creates opportunities, provides jobs for millions and tax revenues that underpin our public services’.
This wasn’t an Osborne-esque political statement, full of traps for the Opposition. But it was much more similar to Hammond’s predecessor’s style than other economic announcements.
Today’s statement was supposed to be an update, a catch-up on the economic figures. But it was striking how much of it was really a catch-up for Hammond on the political arguments.
Join The Spectator’s Andrew Neil, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth, as they share their economic and political analysis for 2018 and beyond on 13 March, in partnership with Old Mutual Global Investors. Book tickets here