Andrew Vine: How Britain has been paralysed by the Government’s drift over Brexit – and just about everything else

THERE will be a sense of pointlessness about the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, rising to deliver his Spring Statement tomorrow.Depending on the outcome of tonight’s vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, what he says might prove redundant if the Government has been plunged into yet more turmoil.

Theresa May and Philip Hammond during a Brexit debate.
Theresa May and Philip Hammond during a Brexit debate.

But even if Britain’s direction of travel is clearer tomorrow than it is today – or has been for more than two years – there will be something hollow and posturing about the statement.

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That’s because he is attempting to set out a road map to an unknown destination. The uncertainties of where Brexit will lead, or what it will mean to the economy, especially in the face of repeated warnings from business and industry that lack of clarity brings with it enormous risks to prosperity, means whatever the Chancellor says could be rendered meaningless within weeks.

Theresa May and Philip Hammond during a visit to Leeds College of Building after the 2017 Autumn Statement - but does the Government lack foundations for the future?

But there is another problem. He is trying to present a policy programme for a Government that has run out of steam under a Prime Minister devoid of both ideas and the skills to get anything done.

Everywhere in this benighted administration is a sense of drift and a lack of grip on urgent domestic policy areas.

It is apparent in the mess of the transport network, the widening gulf between North and South, the social care funding gap that is reducing councils to penury, the failings of Universal Credit that leaves the most vulnerable penniless and the crisis in schools that has driven headteachers to asking parents for financial contributions.

And most poignantly and tragically of all, it is there in the stabbings of children on Britain’s streets, as underfunded police forces struggle to contain knife crime.

Mr Hammond’s effrontery last week in saying police are failing to use their resources effectively was spectacularly ill-judged and insulting to both officers and families grieving for murdered young people.

Any one of these failures in policy would be a stain on the record of an administration. Taken together, they amount to an indictment of a Government that has lost its way and is neglecting to run the country effectively.

Against that backdrop, it will ring very false for Mr Hammond to make the ritual claims that this is a Conservative government that has the welfare of all at heart.

Those in the business community can be forgiven a mirthless laugh at any tub-thumping by the Chancellor about his party being their friend.

The worries expressed by businesses over their inability to plan for the aftermath of Brexit, and their pleas for clarity, have been variously ignored, swatted away or effectively ridiculed by the Tory right-wingers who have held the Government hostage for months.

There is also a grubbiness underlying the statement, especially in the inevitable passages in which Mr Hammond will talk about responsible fiscal management and the need to keep close control of spending.

True for any government, but hard to swallow after the £1bn bribe to Northern Ireland in return for the DUP propping up Theresa May, or the desperate, last-minute offer of £1.6bn to help industrial and coastal communities – many in the North – in the hope of securing Labour votes for a Brexit deal.

The towns and cities at which this money is aimed – a paltry sum when shared nationally – have been crying out for investment for years, yet have largely been ignored.

The Chancellor, in common with his recent predecessors, has poured money into already-prosperous London and the South-East whilst signally failing to provide adequate investment in the North.

Little wonder that the North-South divide has grown. And there can be little doubt that without the desperate scramble for votes to get Mrs May’s Brexit deal through the Commons, the offer of even an inadequate £1.6bn would not have been made.

Brexit colours everything that Mr Hammond will have to say, whether the politics of attempting to hold together a Tory party that is irrevocably split, or the practicalities of delivering an orderly departure from the EU.

Even if Mrs May’s deal is not thrown out again by the Commons tonight, the two-year implementation period that follows Britain’s departure is fraught with problems that make Mr Hammond’s task of predicting what lies ahead especially difficult.

Add to that the pressure from within Tory ranks for Mrs May to set a date to stand down, and the Chancellor may well be making projections for a point where neither he, nor the Prime Minister who ritually claps him on the shoulder when he sits down, is still in office.

It could be that he spends tomorrow morning frantically rewriting his statement in the light of tonight’s vote. But even if he does, the country will still be facing drift and unresolved problems after he has finished speaking.