The Chancellor will hope to sound like the calm pilot steering the listing ship into port, not the bold captain setting sail for another buccaneering adventure. Having undertaken to save the fireworks for the autumn Budget, this is Hammond trying to keep his promise and to portray an image of a steady hand on the tiller, for uncertain times.
We won’t know if he can pull that off until the dust settles in a few days, but for now the course looks set dead-ahead.
However, Hammond can’t help announce two major pieces of economic news on the two conundrums of our age: productivity growth and the public finances.
Without any other major announcements, the media will focus on these, so it’s lucky for Hammond that both are likely to be healthier. But further progress in both critical measures of success will depend on improving the UK’s ageing infrastructure.
Infrastructure wakes you up, then provides hot coffee and the latest news. It gets you to work, then helps get work done. Infrastructure has the potential to solve Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’ and cure thousands of headaches at the Treasury. Yet while indispensable, our poor old infrastructure has long been taken for granted.
This means the Chancellor is leaving unfinished business for the autumn.
Elsewhere, in dramatic contrast, private investors are telling the whole story as quickly as possible and perceptions are changing.
Train enthusiasts have shed their anoraks. Payment technology regularly hits the front pages. Electric cars got sexy. Even Hammond’s beloved spreadsheet has been promoted to the glamourous field of data science.
Most importantly, institutional and private investors are discovering ‘real assets’. Within the last couple of months, organisations from M&G to Montagu and Colony Northstar have all made announcements about infrastructure or ‘real assets’ funds – collectively worth hundreds of billions.
With private capital, different investments are possible. Investors know that the sums still need to add up, just like the Treasury, but private investors can also fund projects with a reasonable level of uncertainty and a higher rate of return.
But what really changed?
You could say society has become more enlightened about the role of infrastructure in boosting the productivity of hard work. You could explain how the ‘search for yield’ has pushed private capital to take on projects that may not have been viable before. Or maybe Britain’s frustrated commuters have edged a little closer to polite revolution. All of these things are probably true.
Yet what’s really changed is the narrative. Public perception and understanding of all things ‘real assets’ has only happened after a much more general interest in the topic. As a society we now have a narrative that makes infrastructure not just sensible, or even vital – but exciting too.
Today isn’t supposed to be too exciting. A plain ‘statement’ this time, there aren’t meant to be any March hares jumping out the Chancellor’s hat. As the media have been thoroughly briefed for months, this isn’t a Budget.
But if we’re lucky, next time we might get to see if ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ has another side. And in the autumn, ‘fun Phil’ might make an appearance to tell the second half of his story.