Spring statement: Philip Hammond is right. There is light at the end of the tunnel, right before another massive tunnel


If you were unfortunate enough to miss Chancellor Philip Hammond deliver his Spring Statement to the House of Commons, the easiest way to recreate it would be to watch The Great Escape in reverse.

For in reverse, not only would you be spared the quaint whistling theme tune, the go to soundtrack of Nigel Farage whenever he has a phenomenally offensive billboard campaign to launch, but you also get to enjoy the most apt metaphor for these wondrous post-financial crash and pre-Brexit days in which we all live.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel.” That was the message Box Office Phil wanted you to take away from what was, quite literally, a fiscal non-event.

And indeed there is. Growth forecasts are up. Seven years of austerity, it turns out, have been a great success. Just make sure you whisper it in the company of anyone disabled, or in any way reliant on any kind of public service. It’s just that, well, it turns out that tunnel he and his forebears have been patiently digging, and from which we are all now emerging dusty and dishevelled into the daylight…Well, how to put this. It turns out we’ve all been burrowing from the comparative safety of mere Nazi occupied Germany and right back into the POW camp.

In fact, perhaps that’s not right. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is that leads, entirely unnecessarily, to another massive tunnel.

Debt is down, for the first time in seventeen years, the Chancellor revealed. What he means by this, of course, is not that the actual debt has gone down, but the proportion of it as a percentage of GDP is. The credit card is still maxed out it’s just that we’ve had a tiny pay rise.

And indeed this tiny pay-rise, in the fullness of time, if everyone plays nicely, might even be spent on doctors and nurses and teachers and other treats like that. But not just yet.

All this good news, of course, does nothing to change the fact that since Brexit the British economy has still gone from the fastest growing in the G7 to the slowest, and that benign global economic conditions are being capitalised upon far more effectively by almost every developed country compared to this one.

This was, Hammond said, him in “Tigger-like” mood. And that the Eeyores were all on the benches opposite.

He is certainly right that there is a fundamental choice facing the public, almost like never before, and also almost like never before, it becomes ever harder to see which option the public is likely to take. 

The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told Mr Hammond he was guilty of “astounding complacency,” if he imagined that everything was suddenly rosy out there. It is not so hard to imagine which of the two men was speaking for the experiences of real people. You don’t even need to know that university lecturers are striking over a pension dispute to at least have the nagging doubt that all is not well out there in the public sector.

But when he accused the Conservatives of “taking free school meals away from a million children,” there was a roar of incredulity the likes of which I honestly think I have never heard in the Commons. It’s a complex policy, but independent fact checkers have concluded that the problem with this particular Labour attack line is that the million children in question don’t actually exist, and are instead an extrapolation based on the impact at, some point in the future, of changes to the benefit system.

You do have a choice then. On the one hand, there’s the chap who says everything’s fine. On the other, the one who wants to give free school meals to ghosts. 

Not so easy, is it?

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