Sajid Javid has this afternoon cancelled a speech he was due to give tomorrow, and brought forward the one-year spending review to early September. It was due to take place later in the autumn. A statement from the Treasury said ‘the forthcoming Spending Round will instead be brought forward in early September and will cover the themes and priorities he was due to outline’.
This isn’t a surprise for any of those in government who had been working on the spending review. Secretaries of State have been returning to Whitehall today, ready for meetings with the Treasury this week about their spending envelopes. They hadn’t been aware that the Spending Review was being moved forward until today, but the announcement has only confirmed what most of them think about the way the government is operating, with Downing Street increasingly focused on preparing for an election. Ministers report that while Javid is very proactive and reasonable to work with, he is not (yet) operating a rival powerhouse to Number 10, and is, in the words of one Cabinet minister ‘just there to sign the cheques’.
As ever in a spending review, whether one or three-year, there is a mix of feelings in Whitehall about what’s coming. If you’re in a department that doesn’t get much attention from voters, then you never see that much generosity from the Treasury. It’s worth reporting, though, that a number of those working in the less politically interesting departments do feel rather more loved than they have in previous years, saying they feel as though the Boris Johnson administration is genuinely interested in sorting out some of their worst problems.
Being in a high-profile ministry isn’t all plain-sailing, either. Prime Ministers and Chancellors tend to want to announce exciting, photogenic spending commitments, whether it is shiny new infrastructure or hordes of new doctors, rather than the sorts of things that public services might actually need in order to work properly. Given the cancellation of this speech has once again raised the possibility that the government is planning for an early general election, ministers are going to find it even harder than usual to convince those at the top to approve their plans for boring but important spending. Economic announcements in the weeks running up to an election are always more about politics than they are about sound financial decisions.