Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, delivered his first fiscal plan today (23 November), abandoning plans to run budget surplus by 2012 and stating that the country's economy will grow by 2.1% this year.
Hammond ditched predecessor George Osborne's commitment to return government finances to surplus by 2020, in a U-turn which punctuated the first major economic announcement since the Brexit vote.
He also unveiled lower economic growth forecasts in his first Autumn Statement as Chancellor, citing –
among other things – that the National Minimum Wage will rise to £7.50 an hour from April 2017, and that agency letting fees will be scrapped.
On examining Hammond's first (and last) Autumn Statement live from the House of Commons today – an event set to be abolished from next year – body language specialist Judi James offered her verdict on what kind of Chancellor the former Castlemead Ltd company director from Essex will be.
With his tall, lean frame, asymmetric mouth, sibilant speech and straight grey hair that is combed as close to a centre parting as matters, Philip Hammond looks like a man for whom the word 'lugubrious' was invented.
He could make a lottery win sound like bad news. He even said it himself in this budget statement: "My style will be different from his" nodding to George Osborne watching pink-faced from the stalls, and he initially spoke the truth; on the surface, The Hammond style is straight from the pages of The Barchester Chronicles, while Osborne was always more Boys' Own Adventures with his cheeky fringe and brittle tone.
Osborne always looked like a man with a rather wicked smile bubbling but Hammond wears the air of a man who only smiles once a year at Christmas. Osborne would fire verbal shots at the opposition with his eyes glinting in victory and his voice getting shriller with each volley, but Hammond has an air of seniority mixed with kindness, as though he could take down his opponent but walk away without finishing him off.
He was clearly sporting some signals of suppressed performance anxiety before he rose to his feet to speak. Despite sitting with an overall air of relaxed experience, the giveaway signs were there: an accelerated blink rate revealing adrenaline leaks under pressure, some worrying eyebrow twitches, a bit of sniffing and nose-scratching, plus a lot of hand fluttering when he did rise to the dispatch box.
He rubbed his face with both hands, smoothed his hair and straightened his tie before he stood and, initially, there was a period of self-policing pose-changes combined with a forward and back self-comfort rocking on his feet. About 35 minutes after starting to speak, Hammond got the wind up his nostrils and got really into his stride. His thumb became erect (a signal of masculine confidence) and the dimple that should have been a clue to this Essex boy's true temperament turned into a huge grin as he surprised us all with some warm but enormously rib-tickling jokes.
Despite staring across the House from the opposition front bench wearing a facial expression that could turn most mortals to stone with his death stare and mouth clamp, even John McDonnell was seduced into smiling and laughter by the new Chancellor, who shows all the signs of being a man that people actually do like a lot. While Osborne's attacking style could be prickly and forensic, Hammond's use of kindly humour meant that his blows landed – but made his victims smile and suffer at the same time.
Hammond's gesticulation resembles Osborne's. with the familiar one-elbow lean on the dispatch box and the eye contact that picks his foes out one at a time, and his paper-straightening is a habit he shares with Gordon Brown. His 'Octopus hand' gesture with fingers placed on the dispatch box suggests a man secretly desperate to keep a lid on all things fiscal but the habit of pointing one index finger at the ceiling to make his more serious points is a signal of quasi-parental dominance and control that he shares with his PM.
When Osborne was put under pressure, his voice would rise and his accent would become posher. With Hammond we hear bits of Essex nip out with the reassuring, occasional dropped 'aitch'. The biggest surprise though is his sense of fun and his comedy timing.
He poked fun at Boris, asked John Hammond if he could dance like Ed Balls and even got us going panto-style before announcing – right at the end – that it was to be his first autumn budget and also his last. Was he quitting? He held the expectant silence just long enough before announcing he was banishing the Autumn Statement rather than flouncing off for an early bath. His fiscal credentials were clearly pointed up but who knew this guy could even get his opponents roaring with friendly laughter?
George Osborne and Philip Hammond