In the drama of the Tory leadership contest, last night was a reminder that it is not only the Prime Minister to whom we will soon be bidding farewell, but the chancellor too.
Philip Hammond’s speech at the Mansion House dinner marked his final major address to the City and the effective end of his tenure at the Treasury.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Hammond has not been the kind of flashy chancellor who tried to use the role as a stepping stone for the top job. In fact, at his first fiscal event – the 2016 Autumn Statement – he spoke out against making hundreds of tax changes twice a year, and committed to a single annual Budget and a straightforward Spring Statement responding to the economic forecast, forgoing the multiple opportunities to tinker and show off that George Osborne had so enjoyed.
“Spreadsheet Phil” should also be commended for his commitment to fiscal discipline. While numerous members of the government, including Theresa May in her final weeks, have attempted to siphon off more taxpayer funds, he has kept a tight grip on the purse strings.
As the leadership candidates have pledged tax cuts and spending splurges on everything from schools to local councils to the environment, the chancellor’s contribution to the contest has been to urge them to commit to reducing the national debt (at least as a proportion of GDP) and not increasing the deficit.
Beyond that, his record is mixed. Hammond can have a tin ear for the political mood and wasn’t much of an asset in winning over floating voters.
His attempt to raise national insurance for the self-employed was misguided and embarrassing, while his announcement of an income tax cut last autumn (as a sign that austerity was over) was partially nullified by a rise in national insurance for middle and high earners – an underhand move from a chancellor who trades on being too mature or too dull for such stealth machinations.
Still, it is worth remembering that under Hammond, the deficit has been all but eliminated and the UK economy is in a respectable state. The UK jobs miracle continues, wage growth has ticked up, and the economy is (for now at least) still growing.
Hammond won’t depart to a chorus of cheers, but he can leave with his head held high.