In Depth

Autumn Statement 2016: What the commentators thought

Philip Hammond's first set-piece was a sombre affair, say the pundits, but not everyone thinks that's bad

In his first set-piece as chancellor, Philip Hammond "hoped to ditch the card tricks and just lay out the grim hand he had been dealt", says Matt Chorley in The Times

However, he could not do that: Prime Minister Theresa May "demanded rabbits to be pulled from hats – no matter how small, old or riddled with myxomatosis", adds the journalist.             

So, while revealing a £122bn explosion in public debt, half of which is due to Brexit, Hammond found room for a £23bn splurge to address the UK's productivity problems and offered a range of measures to help "just about managing" families.

"But nothing can disguise the fact that today's performance will be best remembered for the way the uncertainty of Brexit seems to have made £100bn disappear. Just like that," Chorley adds.

For Allister Heath of the Daily Telegraph, the problem was not the dire debt figures - "I just don't believe the numbers" - or disappointing prestidigitation. It was the way the Chancellor offered "managerialism" rather than "visionary leadership".

Heath dismisses the whole package as "inbuilt Remainian bias [that] risks becoming self-fulfilling: the Chancellor cannot cut tax because the economy is assumed to slow, so he doesn't and it does". 

Instead, he continues, the "real tragedy" is that by failing to cut taxes to boost business, "the government is doing almost nothing to build a new, stronger, free market Britain to capitalise on Brexit". 

Larry Elliot of The Guardian agrees the speech was a "sombre affair", but he is concerned more with the lack of real help for a struggling health service and hard-pressed families.

He writes: "The Child Poverty Action Group has calculated that a single parent with one child and no housing costs earning £15,000 a year will be £170 a year better off as a result of the new universal credit regime.

"But the same person stood to lose out by £3,170 a year as a result of the summer 2015 budget."

Also in the Telegraph, Jeremy Warner agrees the speech was not especially eye-catching. However, he says, "Hammond was never going to be that kind of Chancellor". 

"What was sketched out in the forecasts was the worst deterioration in the outlook for the public finances since the financial crisis… Brexit was a vote to leave the EU, not for revolution; a Tory government can never actively promote instability," he says.

He concludes: "If it's the vision thing people demand, then Hammond is not their man. But if it is carefully calibrated treatment of a still sick patient, then this is not a bad first stab at the problem."

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