Who has time to care about a Spring Statement when the unfolding Brexit process feels like watching a cross between Saw 3 and a monster truck rally?
This has been a problem for two and a half years – the Brexit black hole has sucked time and resources away from almost every other area of public policy. From the shortage of housing to the knife crime crisis in the capital, nothing gets the attention that it deserves.
Of course, not all issues should be treated equally, and I’m hesitant to treat the Spring Statement in any grandiose fashion. Indeed, my colleague Philip Booth has been arguing for years that the annual Budget should be slimmed down dramatically, or abolished all together.
I take his point – as presenting Budgets in the political arena encourages grandstanding and gives the chancellor more opportunity to meddle in the economy.
But as the Spring Statement has come and gone, too little attention has been paid to what has changed – or what has not.
Philip Hammond’s interpretation of fiscal responsibility seems to be increasingly malleable. The chancellor has historically been financially cautious and thoughtful about the state of the economy. Yet in the run-up to the Spring Statement, he essentially offered an end to “austerity” on the condition that the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal gets through parliament.
Putting aside questions of how actively austerity has been pursued (research from the Institute of Economic Affairs found that spending was only cut 0.5 per cent each year under the coalition government), this was an extremely worrying note for the chancellor to strike.
The principles of spending within the government’s means and not racking up enormous future debt do not simply disappear or become less relevant in the pursuit of short-term political gain.
If you frame balancing the budget as matter of choice rather than necessity, you cede ground to those who advocate for more spending and higher taxes, as if these policies come without consequences.
His announcements themselves remained uninspiring, focused yet again on how the government can intervene more in UK markets, rather than liberate Britain to achieve growth and productivity.
This state-centric mentality was particularly obvious around the housing announcement, which would pledge £3bn to an Affordable Homes Guarantee scheme.
Having tried and failed in its top-down approach, the government is still attempting to address the housing crisis through a central planning scheme, which Hammond himself estimates will only add tens of thousands of homes to the market.
The glimmer of hope came in the move to scrap the visa cap for PhD roles. This should be the start of a totally revamped immigration policy which scraps the visa cap for all Tier 2 jobs. There is no reason to prohibit skilled workers – who clearly contribute the economy – from coming to live and work in the UK.
Will these issues get a look-in before Brexit is done and dusted? Highly doubtful. But the longer we put off addressing major public policy challenges, the harder they will be to tackle down the road.
And it won’t be “because of Brexit” or “despite Brexit”. It will be entirely down to domestic failure.