The autumn statement is one of two set-piece occasions when the chancellor has the opportunity to set out his view of what is happening in the economy and where we want to go. And just like the budget, it is about the economy but also intensely political. Both should give a clear view of where the government is heading. We got neither of these things. The chancellor’s proposals were completely overshadowed by Brexit, and the dire state of the country’s public finances following that vote.
Surely this was the time for the government to confront the uncertainty caused by our vote and give us a clear sense of direction. Yet the chancellor barely mentioned Brexit. It was the classic elephant in the room.
The decision taken five months ago will have profound consequences for our country. It is telling that the Office for Budget Responsibility – the government’s independent watchdog – said on the first page of its report that it had a legal requirement to produce its forecasts on the basis of current government policy.
When, not unreasonably, it asked for a formal statement of government policy so it could make its projections, it was referred to two short paragraphs from a speech made by the prime minister in September.
She seems reluctant to tell parliament what she intends to do. Ministers are rightly expected to engage with parliament and account for themselves. That’s how our democracy works.
I faced very difficult circumstances as chancellor. The complete collapse of the banking system in 2008 had profound consequences. Yet I was expected to, and did, attend parliament regularly to explain what the government was doing and how we planned to get through the crisis.
From this government, incredibly, nothing. So for me the autumn statement has failed the big tests. No sense of direction: are we really expected to wait until March – when article 50 is to be triggered – before we hear anything? Yes, we’ve taken the decision to leave but we are entitled to debate what we do instead.
How else should we judge today’s statement? First, the politics. We have been told that the prime minister’s big concern is to look after people who are “just about managing”. These are the people who used to be described by the last government as hard-working families – a new description, perhaps, but facing the same challenges. Many voted for Brexit because they felt their struggles were being ignored, and I don’t think today will change much for many people who are seeing their living standards fall, and are likely to see that continue.
Yes, confirmation that personal tax allowances will increase is welcome. So too are the minor changes to universal credit, no matter how far off that prospect is. But can Philip Hammond really claim credit for not increasing petrol duty when it hasn’t been raised for years? Politically it is virtually impossible to put up petrol duty, further eroding the tax base. Many people who are “just about managing” depend on public services, like the NHS and social care, which are struggling. Six years of austerity is taking its toll on many of the services on which we depend.