Did no one tell Philip Hammond that austerity is raging outside? | Aditya Chakrabortty

Listen to Philip Hammond and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense that he is an adult making sober, cautious decisions. Not blessed with the (ahem) charisma of a Boris Johnson, he is happily less given to spouting headline-grabbing rubbish. While his colleagues have spent the past two and a half years promising voters the moon on a stick, the chancellor has kept his cool. The spring statement was classic Hammond. Sandwiched between Tuesday’s humiliation for Theresa May and the no-deal vote Wednesday night, he was never going to command any front pages. Watching, you could mistake him for the bank manager your branch doesn’t have: sensible, dull, unremarkable.

In which case you’d have misjudged both him and his policies. Because Hammond has just taken two big risks. One of those was right and could damage him; the other a huge blunder and will hurt the rest of us.

First, you had the second most important cabinet member publicly breaking the line set down by the prime minister. The words that will be quoted again and again from Hammond’s statement were about the need for May to “build a consensus” on Brexit with Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of the Commons “for a deal we can collectively support”. That is not only a rebuke to the prime minister, it is tantamount to a call for a softer Brexit than the government is offering. Stood at the same dispatch box where his boss had handled prime minister’s questions just minutes before, and right in front of her, he was effectively freelancing his own position on the most important policy of the day. No wonder May looked like thunder.

He also made clear his opposition to a no-deal Brexit, arguing that it will shrink the economy, push down wages and jack up prices. In other words, a national calamity. But wasn’t his boss the one who opined that “no deal is better than a bad deal”? Hasn’t she spent the past two years playing up to the no-dealers and hard Brexiters in her own party? Remember that moment, because it is rare that you get such a tangible sense of power draining away from a prime minister. Yet that is what Mr Safe Pair of Hands has just given us this afternoon.

The other great risk the chancellor has taken is with the economy. With one of his two big policy announcements this year, he did almost nothing. However valiantly he tried to fill the gap with Reviews and Consultations and Vision Statements, there was a massive vacuum in his speech where some policy should have been. You would not have guessed from listening to him that the economy is on the brink of recession, that local councils are going bust, that schools across the land are sending parents begging letters for cash. Analysis by the TUC shows that by 2024, spending on public services will still be £500 lower per person than it was in 2009.

Hammond claims that all he needs is a deal on Brexit to open the sluice gates and get spending, but there is no logical connection between the two. The UK has its own currency, and interest rates are barely off the floor. Now is the time for a government to spend on public housing, on schools and on a welfare system that doesn’t treat claimants as scammers and idlers. Sadly, it won’t be this government.

Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist


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