The annual Autumn Statement may soon be part of political history, if the UK government decides to do away with the opportunity to publicly deliver an update on economic policy. The argument is that the Budget provides ample opportunity to set out plans every year, and a revision six months later only provides the Treasury with an unwelcome distraction.
Philip Hammond must wish the statement had been done away with already, as he prepares to make his first set-piece pronouncement on the economy since becoming chancellor in the summer, because right now, more than ever before, economic forecasting is a minefield. For every expert who gives an opinion on what the consequences of leaving the EU will be, there is another who will give the opposite view. We just do not know what is coming.
Hammond therefore is at the mercy of seismic events which have yet to unfold. His task will be to present an Autumn Statement which is not completely redundant in six months’ time. And if he achieves that, he will have reason for some satisfaction, because it will be an improvement on the recent fate of his predecessor George Osborne.
Hammond’s task is further complicated by his prime minister’s determination to give nothing away about her government’s vision of what Brexit will actually mean. Is it possible to give an honest and objective Autumn Statement while keeping the ultimate objective a secret? Of course not.
If Hammond can offer no more than a compromised guess at the way the economy is going, what we need is guidance on which way the government is going. Business cannot be put on hold indefinitely while the government plays its cards close to its chest. Investors loathe uncertainty, and at the moment they are getting nothing but that.
What we need from Hammond is clear direction on what the government is preparing for in the months ahead. Anything else would be a lack of leadership at a time when it has rarely been more necessary.