Is Chancellor Philip Hammond being gagged over GDP?

(c) Sky News 2017: <a href="">Is Chancellor Philip Hammond being gagged over GDP?</a>

There is a sacred ritual in the world of economic reporting.

Every time a new set of Gross Domestic Product statistics is published, the Chancellor of the Exchequer does a round of interviews with Britain's TV broadcasters to explain the numbers to the public.

It has been happening, quarter in, quarter out, for as long as I've been doing this job; as I understand it, the tradition goes back at least a decade, to Alistair Darling. Even (Taiwan OTC: 6436.TWO - news) at the last election, and the referendum last year, George Osborne broke from the campaign trail to talk about the figures when they were released.

But this time, when the latest GDP figures are out this morning, there will be no interviews with the Chancellor. He will not do his sacramental tour of a factory or workplace. He will wear no hard hat. He will don no hi-vis vest.

He will record a few short words with a single broadcaster, to be shared with all the channels, and then disappear back into HM Treasury.

Quite why this long-standing tradition is being broken is as yet unexplained, although most of the theories go back to Number 10.

One is that Theresa May and her advisers had tired of recent interviews in which Philip Hammond had raised issues which they would rather he didn't discuss (the manifesto tax pledge, most recently, in Washington). They simply wanted to gag the Chancellor.

Another is that they have decided, this being an election and Mrs May being their strongest asset, that they'd rather not dilute her impact.

The final one is that they know the GDP figures are likely to be weak, and would rather not draw that much attention to them.

Indeed, given no one listens to economists these days, you might have missed the fact that they're predicting a fall in the GDP growth rate for the first quarter of the year.

Their forecasts say that gross domestic product will weaken, from its 0.7% rate in the final three months of last year to only 0.4%, maybe 0.5%, in Q1 2017.

There are two ways to interpret this: 1) the economy is starting to flag after its post-Brexit borrowing binge, and will continue to weaken in the coming months, or 2) this is just another slightly weaker first quarter of growth - nothing to panic about.

In practice, the second of these sounds like a fairer interpretation. The fact is, far from plunging into recession, as economists had predicted before the referendum, UK PLC is still doing pretty well: not rapid growth, not even trend, but pretty strong compared with recent years.

Then again, Mr Hammond is known to be one of the more cautious cabinet ministers when it comes to the economic impact of Brexit. So perhaps the PM was worried he would appear downbeat about the numbers.

Now (Frankfurt: 11N.F - news) , you might conclude that I'm making a big fuss about nothing - that whether the Chancellor does a short clip or a series of actual interviews is neither here nor there. And you're probably right.

However, at the very least, it's a sign of another shift in the openness of this administration.

Up until this week, the one thing chancellors jealously guarded was their right to take questions, openly, from various media outlets to explain the state of the economy every three months.

That era is now over.

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