The Chancellor refused to say that Brexit is “worth it” as he insisted the Government has yet to model the economic effects of its hoped-for exit deal.
Theresa May replied “yes” when asked if it was worth paying the predicted price of leaving the EU, when quizzed by MPs in the Commons last week.
But, asked the same question on the BBC Andrew Marr’s programme, Philip Hammond declined to say he believed that Brexit was in the interests of the British people.
“The British people have decided that we are leaving the European Union and that is what we are doing. Our job is to make sure that we get the best possible deal for Britain,” he replied.
It was possible to achieve a “smart Brexit” that would protect jobs, prosperity and businesses, Mr Hammond added.
The Government has dismissed its own leaked forecasts warning of a severe economic hit from leaving the EU, on the basis they did not model the preferred outcome.
Asked if that exit deal that Britain hoped to achieve had been studied by Treasury officials, Mr Hammond said: “Not yet – we haven’t even embarked on the negotiation yet.”
He hinted at doubts over agreeing a transition deal, of about two years, at next week’s EU summit, saying only that it would “hopefully” be agreed.
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“Then we start talking with them about a shape of a future partnership. Once we know what the deal looks like, then we will certainly model it,” the Chancellor said.
The timetable will raise doubts over the Government’s pledge to put the full Brexit modelling before MPs before a “meaningful vote” on the Prime Minister’s deal this autumn.
Any agreement is unlikely to be reached before October – and maybe later – giving little time for the Treasury work to be carried out before the vote.
Looking ahead to the Spring Statement on Tuesday, Mr Hammond insisted he would not relax his grip on the public finances, despite seeing “light at the end of the tunnel” for the economy.
Britain’s debt mountain – at £1.8 trillion, or 86.5 per cent of GDP – was still too high and had to be brought down.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel because what we are about to see is debt starting to fall after it has been growing for 17 continuous years. That is a very important moment for us but we are still in the tunnel at the moment,” the Chancellor said.
On debt, he added: “All the international organisations recognise that is higher than the safe level.
“This isn’t some ideological issue. It is about making sure that we have the capacity to make sure that we can respond to any future shock to the economy.”
For Labour, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said the Government’s approach was not working and it needed to change direction.
“Austerity is holding growth back. Wages are below what they were in 2007-08 so this isn’t a matter for celebration,” he told the same programme.
“What he [Mr Hammond] has done, very cleverly, very cunningly, he has shifted the debt onto the shoulders of NHS managers, onto the shoulders of head teachers and onto the shoulders of local government leaders.”