Mon, 16 Jan 2017 | Insights
Published in The Daily Telegraph 30th November 2016:
Social Business: Hammond’s performance gains a muted welcome from business
In a year of aggressive, up-front politics, this week’s Autumn Statement has felt like a bit of a throwback to a subtler age.
Whilst headlines have been dominated by the Donald Trump, and his tribute act Nigel Farage and their noisy dominance of Twitter and TV, the Chancellor Philip Hammond has taken a determinedly old-school approach. It’s like stumbling across an episode of Midsomer Murders on ITV2 when you’ve become used to nudity and dragons on Netflix.
The behind-the-scenes briefings, the care in balancing of the political books alongside the fiscal ones, the viewing of the economy through the lens of the Treasury/Number 10 relationship all seems curiously old-fashioned and out of synch with what’s going on elsewhere. ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ is hardly a charismatic figure at the best of times but when he’s running an economy marked ‘fragile - please don’t touch’, while we ponder the likely long-term effect of Brexit, his steady approach has won the confidence of the business community, and that was the prize he valued, and needed, most.
The social media analysis company Impact Social looked at the reactions on social media platforms from all FTSE 100 companies, the Fastrack 250, the major law and accountancy firms, well-known UK entrepreneurs and the main trade associations. They tracked all the social media posts from that group for the 24 hours following the Chancellor getting to his feet, and analysed the data (with actual human brains, not algorithms) from the point of view of ‘was the Autumn Statement good for British business’. In short, it’s the freely offered opinions of those who will drive the economy in the coming years. Hammond needs to have their confidence. And, from the 1500 posts analysed, he’s (cautiously) got it.
Hammond’s job was to deliver a low-key, non-political statement that would endear the post-Brexit Tory party to the business community once again. And that’s what he did - Impact Social’s data shows 43% of posts gave a positive rating of his performance (19% negative, the rest neutral reporting).
While media commentators frothed over the projected rise in national debt or tried to position the whole affair as a preparatory enema for the exit from Europe, the business community was looking much closer to home, looking at the smaller details - the initiatives which affect them directly and being rather pleased with what they found - export finance positively mentioned by 5% of posts, technology fund (5%), housing spending (5%), and a balanced 13% each on the subjects of productivity and the UK remaining a ‘pro-business’ country. For a man who likes his spreadsheets, those are a lot of boxes filled, with the landing of the pro-business message an especially important signal.
But the one which would have heartened Hammond most was the 34% of positive chatter around infrastructure spend - the sort of long-term government spending that even Chancellors like, the good giveaways that stimulate economic activity while having the long-lasting benefit that even spending £7.6m on refitting a stately home that Jane Austen didn’t visit can deliver.
While he may have got away with the refitting of Wentworth Woodhouse (with surprisingly little bile emerging from the business community on that one), the data didn’t provide all good news. As well as 38% of the negative posts spotting that dirty great big debt projected by the OBR, the one that reveals just how much Brexit could cost us, the fall in sterling (8% of posts), increased borrowing (5%), increased insurance premiums (16%) and the need for tax reform (11%) all attracting the beady eye of business.
So you can’t get away with everything, but Hammond got away with most. If the aim of his first, and last, Autumn Statement was to demonstrate competence and control, to show he could steer the economy through the Brexit storms ahead, then the business community gave restrained applause. The caution, the pre-briefings, the steady hand on the tiller all worked pretty well - the Quiet Man of the Treasury gained a quiet victory. He’ll be quietly pleased.
This article featured in the Sunday Telegraph on 27 November 2016