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Why no budget vision for Brexit Britain?

Philip Hammond barely mentioned Brexit during his budget speech. Credit: PA

Fans and foes of Brexit would agree on one thing: leaving the EU represents the most profound economic change this country has faced since... well at least since the dramatic shift away from managed and relatively closed economies in the 1980s and maybe since the end of the Second World War.

I say "change" because obviously the nation is divided on whether Brexit is an opportunity or a challenge.

Proponents would say "hooray, at last the UK has the opportunity to tailor economic, fiscal, trade and industrial policies to suit the needs of the nation, without having to trim and compromise as a result of ordinances from Brussels".

Opponents would say "yikes, our economy that is dependent on international businesses based here for free frictionless access to the world's biggest market, the EU's, must surely slow down as the friction and costs rise of trading with that market".

So, whether you're an expectant Brexiter or an anxious Remainer, you'll agree that Brexit will be a very big thing.

Which is why the day after the last planned budget before we leave the EU, I had the kind of thought that whacked me in the moosh like a large wet halibut: there was almost no vision in it for how to reconfigure the economy for life after we leave the EU on 29 March next year.

The chancellor promised extra cash in the case of no-deal Brexit. Credit: PA

In fact, Brexit barely rated a mention: just one use of the word itself, compared with 10 references to the laudable "hard work" of the British people in coping with the austerity of the past eight years.

And where Philip Hammond touched on leaving the EU, it was mainly to warn Tory MPs of a purist Brexiter bent not to force the PM into a no-deal Brexit, for fear this would derail growth and render unaffordable his pledge to end austerity.

Or to put it another way, the budget captured the defining characteristic of our government: it is led by ministers who didn't vote for Brexit, don't have their hearts in it, and who see the task of removing the UK from the EU not as a great and positive adventure but as a damage-limitation exercise.

Hammond announced £1/2bn more cash would be deployed to protect us if we exit without a deal. And was a substantial tax-cutting and spending stimulus to partly offset an economic performance that has already become inferior to our main competitors since we voted to leave.

These however are prophylactics rather than fertility treatments. They are protections against the worst that could happen, not exciting imaginative plans for a greater, brighter future.

In part the Chancellor and Treasury were restricted in their policy options by the conspicuous absence yet of anything that looks like a long term agreement with the EU for our long term relationship with it. But that is simply to highlight the divisions among the Tories about what Brexit could and should be.

So the question for the 17.4m people who voted to leave the EU is whether they think they deserve something better from a government that promised to honour their wishes.