The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, breezed into the Commons to deliver a languid and greatly abridged Spring Statement. He had the genial air of a president-for-life emerging from his palace to correct the mis-steps of a bungling and soon-to-be-discarded Prime Minister. He dished out a few hundred million quid on various worthy schemes (save-the-hedgehog projects; free sanitary towels for school-girls) and he added some passing references to Brexit. A ‘cloud’ he called it. ‘A spectre of uncertainty.’ It sounded like a minor niggle which he could resolve while signing his morning correspondence.
He used encrypted language, of course. He said that tomorrow’s vote on Article 50 will ‘map out a way forward towards building a consensus’. That means Brexit delayed or possibly scrapped. He spoke of a deal being struck ‘over the next few weeks’ – which suggests that no agreement will be reached within 16 days. He showed scant interest in rebuilding our European compact from scratch. He wants a ‘continued partnership with the EU’. Code for a customs union.
He was not short of economic self-congratulation. He laid it on like a starlet trowelling her cheeks with make-up. Debt has been tamed, he said. Borrowing is down, wages are soaring, employment is growing. At one point, ludicrously, he claimed that the economy is operating at ‘near-full capacity.’ In that case, any further growth will make the UK overheat and blow itself sky high.
That wasn’t his only puzzling statement. He told us about a new supercomputer in Edinburgh that will deliver ‘ten thousand trillion calculations every second.’ He didn’t say what computer is asking all the questions. He turned to evolutionary history. ‘For the first time in 60 million years,’ he revealed, the rate of extinctions is growing. He’s keen that new homes must not be built ‘at the cost of biodiversity’. This casual statement will send armies of activists into battle against any constructor who might shear the leg off a single ladybird. Result, soaring costs.
He seems to have been captured by the quadrangle-wanderers of academia. He spoke with pride about hiring three distinguished professors whose names would not be known outside their own parking-spaces. And his barrage of loopy figures included an estimate, in millions sterling, of the value added to the economy by ‘pollinators’, (meaning bees, presumably). He didn’t mention how much revenue is generated by plankton. Perhaps that’s for the Autumn Statement.
He sat down and handed over to ‘Nostradamus’ as he called John McDonnell. Hammond had warned the House to ignore the ‘dangerous rhetoric’ of the shadow chancellor. And it was pretty inflammatory stuff. McDonnell sounded like a prosecutor reading the charge-sheet at Nuremberg. He began by reminding the court – sorry the chamber – that Hammond had been the author of austerity when he served as George Osborne’s deputy. Fiscal restraint, argued McDonnell, had been a purely ideological choice not an economic necessity. And he found Hammond guilty of ‘every preventable death’ that had arisen from reductions to health, welfare and police budgets under the Tories. He was quite specific. He included victims of the recent knife-crime epidemic. All down to Hammond. This would amount to the worst case of mass-murder in British history. The Chancellor, accused of being a serial killer on live television, watched with an ashen smirk. He barely moved a muscle. Why bother about the past? He looked as if he had the future all sewn up.