Michael White on Philip Hammond, the fighting chancellor

PUBLISHED: 13:30 30 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:16 31 August 2018

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond.

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Michael White on how Brexit realist Philip Hammond lit Fleet Street’s blue touchpaper.

The African Queen. Picture: Martin RowsonThe African Queen. Picture: Martin Rowson

They may mock him for being dull. But where would Fleet Street’s Brexit Crew be in the dog days of August without Philip Hammond to come to their rescue?

Parliament and the courts, both staple sources of inexpensive news, are not sitting. Most of the Street of Shame’s star columnists and their think tank pals are at their dachas or Greek villas. Filling those empty pages was looking like hard work until Spreadsheet Phil came along and poured cold San Pellegrino all over sweaty Dominic Raab’s “technical notices” about a no-deal Brexit.

Judo black belt Raab’s technical notices were, well, rather technical, albeit in a life-and-death sort of way. So they were never going to devout much newsprint, even in the Financial Times. That rival August controversy, the Corbyn anti-Semitism row, was going round in circles, As for that leaked memo urging pro-Remain Labour activists – they’re the majority, Jeremy – to force a People’s Vote ballot at the party’s Liverpool conference, the memo didn’t have a public face and media coverage quickly spluttered. You can’t run a campaign from a cupboard.

But the chancellor’s intervention on two sides of A4, helpfully published on the Treasury website, was the revival of an old popular tune: “Let’s Sack Remoaner Phil.” It’s far easier to whistle than any imaginable song about Theresa May’s visit to Africa in search of those vibrant new markets in a part of the world growing so much faster than tired old Europe, as the Brexiteers like to put it.

May was right to go. Good luck, Theresa. But it smacks a bit of belated desperation. Hasn’t anyone told No 10 that France’s assiduous neo-colonial grip on Africa is matched by China’s – whereas, to Anglophone Africa’s despair, Britain had no fewer than nine ministers for the region in the Blair-Brown years alone? May’s current Africa minister, Harriet Baldwin, has been in place since January. Her predecessor, Rory Stewart, lasted six months. This isn’t serious.

In his struggle to keep the country solvent while also appeasing profligate colleagues and austerity-weary voters, gloomy Hammond is at least serious. His cold water letter gave Fleet Street a chance to sidestep the substance of 
Raab’s 24 DExEU papers –the first batch cover the easier topics – and what they actually said about the downside of a no-deal outcome.

No wonder the Brexit secretary perspired so much as he presented them and made a weak joke about not running out of sandwiches after March 29. It was enough to allow supportive newspapers to recognise in all the unread details the familiar face of our old friend, Rosy Scenario.

Rosy herself tried to put a brave face on the day, as victims of domestic abuse so often do. Raab told reporters that the vast majority of voters would not even notice the difference after a no-deal Brexit. “I am absolutely clear that the UK will be better off outside of (sic) the EU in any scenario in the long term.” He could hardly have said less without risking a Fleet Street razor gang. Long-term such a prediction may be enough to sink his career anyway, like the devalued pound in Harold Wilson’s 1967 pocket or John Reid’s “not a shot fired” hope in Helmand province.

But Rosy’s black eye told a different story. She must have been worked over by the usual suspects. The FT account of the technical notices concluded that financial services would probably manage (not least by following Jacob Rees-Mogg’s firm in opening more EU offices) provided Europe cooperated; ditto trade where exporters face mountains of new red tape (but that’s OK because it will be white and blue tape, not just red), but the UK will rely on the reciprocal kindness of strangers in places like Mexico, Korea and Brussels.

VAT? That’s a tricky one. We may soon be hearing more about “missing trader fraud” where the lads skip off (not you, Boris, obviously) without paying their VAT.

Medicines? Glad you mentioned that one, Pharma firms are being advised to stockpile an extra six weeks supplies from March 29 (just in case, you understand), but the health secretary is telling us not to do it at home (or in hospital either).

Organic food exports? Er, no, not yet, but we’re working on a red, white and blue logo.

Nuclear material? Don’t ask.

The Guardian and Times had different lists of potential problems (access to UK pensions via French banks? Oh do shut up), but the overall picture was the same. The downside is tangible, dependent on uncertain cooperation elsewhere and often costly or time-consuming. The benefits are vague and as far on the horizon as Prince George’s coronation or the fourth Corbyn premiership.

No wonder Hammond let rip, ostensibly with a well-timed reply to a July 20 letter from Nicky Morgan, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, sweetly inquiring about the possible cost of a no-deal Brexit over the next 15 years. In the worst case scenario it could – could – be £150 billion lost to the economy, leading to an £80 billion addition to public borrowing – if lenders are still minded to lend at affordable rates, Hammond’s number crunchers concluded.

It’s all speculative and will be updated before MPs vote on any deal, but it’s in line with much domestic and international analysis, the chancellor said.

Phoar! Light the blue touchpaper and retire on a defined contributions pension. The Daily Mail dusted off its “Hammond Launches Project Fear (Pt2)” headline, following it up next day with a “Hammond the Brexit Saboteur Must Go, Top Tories Demand” piece. The Telegraph, pottier by the day, and the Sun (just a larf, isn’t it?) piled in with hyperbolic denunciation of the traitor.

This is Trump talk and it is ugly. Sensible people do not call people they disagree with “traitors”. The best tribute to senator John McCain that I saw was a Twitter clip from his doomed presidential campaign in 2008. Confronted by a Republican activist who suggested candidate Obama was a sinister foreigner McCain said “no” adding Obama was a decent and patriotic American, albeit an opponent. Well done, senator.

Back home the Mail was quoting the late Lords Norman Tebbit and Cliff Lawson (there isn’t one) in company with novelist Nadine Dorries MP and a backbencher new to me with the sinister name of Fysh. Why can’t a Brexit MP spell it the proper English way is what I want to know? Marcus Fysh (it would surely be more Global Britain to spell it Phish) criticised the cabinet for not being “bothered to sort out the Treasury’s sub-standard work”.

I checked out Fysh. He is a child of privilege, a Wykehamist (though, unusually, not a Corbynite) and an asset manager. He won Yeovil from fallen Lib Dem, David Laws, in 2015 and lives in TS Eliot country at East Coker where his hobbies include Nimbyism. We have come to a sorry pass in the party discipline department when a whippersnapper like young Fysh feels free to be so unintelligently disrespectful towards a Tory chancellor.

In fact all the chancellor was doing was recycling those dimly remembered, much disparaged three Cross-Whitehall Briefing scenarios which his officials published in January. They outlined the likely consequences of a Norway/EEA deal; a free trade agreement (FTA); and the WTO/No Deal option. In other words, from not too bad (in the Treasury’s view) through to bloody awful and that £80 billion on UK Plc’s credit card that we won’t be able to afford.

The government seeks none of these outcomes, Mr Spreadsheet piously added. It seeks a Chequers deal. Of course it does, though President Macron used his weekend speech on foreign policy to reemphasise that a continuing “strong special relationship with London” cannot be achieved by undermining the single market as the Chequers paper implies. On the same day the Guardian reported that German industrialists are getting twitchy about a no-deal outcome, as well they might. There is much to play for on both sides as the Barnier clock ticks on.

So the chancellor’s political crime was timing. Hammond was pulling rank on Raab’s untested optimism, as a chancellor is entitled to do, especially in such unruly times. Until she was trapped by reporters on her plane to Cape Town Mrs May did not over-react, the papers did it for her. May’s pre-trip remarks stressed the need to use the UK’s controversial 0.7% of GDP aid budget to serve our own economic needs, a sop to macho Brexit voters who don’t much like aid except when it comes their way.

In the same spirit she cautiously distanced herself from Hammond, enough to get positive (‘Hammond slapped down’) headlines from the autopilot tabloids, but not very much. She quoted Roberto Azevedo, DG of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), who said last week that a no deal/WTO outcome “would not be a walk in the park, but would not be the end of the world either”. Hardly a battle cry, is it? Azevedo’s original comments were barely reported last week. What does the WTO boss know about WT compared with Iain Duncan Smith, eh?

It’s worth noting here that top Brexiteers were notably quiet about the Raab papers. As quiet, you may say in passing, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has been about the monstrous abuse of power now being painfully uncovered at the heart of Europe. Why has he not spoken out (or did I miss it?) either about a cynical cover-up by the unaccountable men – they are all men – who run the most secretive and authoritarian body on the continent. I refer, of course, to sexual misconduct within the Catholic church. Other prominent lay Catholics have called for justice during the Pope’s visit to Ireland , but just this once Motor Mouth Mogg has kept schtum.

But Hammond-bashing requires no courage in 2018. We have reached the point where UKIP activists are being encouraged to adopt ‘Blue Momentum’ tactics and commit entryism into the Conservative Party’s activist ranks, despite an explicit warning from William Hague in the Daily Telegraph that such short-sighted tactics as changing the leadership rules to facilitate a Boris Johnson succession will prove short-sighted folly. Where were these people when Ed Miliband invented the “five-pound member” with such unintended consequences for Labour?

Did I say “they don’t do detail”? I did. But it’s not quite right. Rees-Mogg risked moving from airy platitude to detail over the Irish border problem the other day. Having previously joined those who dismissed the issue as politically connived by Brussels or by Ireland’s electioneering Taioseach, Leo Varadkar, and said he didn’t need to visit to know this, he invoked past border inspection regimes with the fatal phrase “as we had during the Troubles”.

In a more perfect world this careless remark deserved more attention than it got, much like Raab’s technical notices. The Brexit cause prospered – like populist politics everywhere – on charges of elite betrayal by out-of-touch metropolitans coupled with vague assurances that all would be well if immigrants were kept out or the country freed from EU shackles which prevent it trading more with China (Germany’s No 1 trading partner). They steer clear of detail.

Yet here was Mogg casually invoking a past that consumed much blood, money and human misery on both sides of the Irish border – at Warrington, Birmingham and elsewhere too – with no apparent awareness of how his words might be received. He’s a practising Catholic too, remember and Northern Ireland’s Catholics (Prods too) have been without a devolved government longer than Belgium’s 589-day record in 2010-11.

I thought the slip said a lot, much as president Trump’s incivility towards McCain did. But a lot of otherwise decent people, wrapped up in their own anxieties, don’t seem to care, as they once did. So it is unlikely much to shift public perceptions, though YouGov’s Peter Kellner notes that the pro-Brexit North East (58:42%) in 2016 is now polling 50:50% and the under-40s 61:39% for Remain.

Where does this leave us as the new political season looms? As directionless as we were in late July, I fear.

Nigel Farage is threatening to return to front-line politics. The once-and-future UKIP leader gave an interview to the Times in which he confided that a big campaign is under way (“I feel it in my waters”) to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process and let inertia drag us back into the EU’s web. Not that he thinks May’s government isn’t doing hopelessly and has given up on most things. He hasn’t read the Raab papers but doesn’t believe them anyway. May simply won’t allow a no-deal Brexit.

Michel Barnier has played a brilliant hand and “would like the IRA to become active again”. Farage thinks that well-funded (sic) Remainers – Soros, Blair, Campbell, Roland Rudd the PR man – have seized the narrative. Familiar patter to which the answer is always Nigel until the moment comes to buy a round or do the washing up. My hunch is Farage may discover that it’s harder the second time around.

That leaves the conference season to be overcome by both May and Corbyn, neither displaying much leadership, both manoeuvring for tactical Brexit advantage within their divided parties. Stalwarts in both camps and parties claim to have the power of parliamentary veto. An estimated 40 Tory Remain MPs are said (by ex-minister Nick Boles) to be determined to block a no-deal Brexit.

At least 12 Labour MPs might join them if Corbyn plays for tactical advantage in the hope of securing an election. A phalanx of hard Brexits threaten to do the same to any deal – the “Chuck Chequers” or something less than Canada Plus – that “chains” Britain to the hated EU. Who knows? The “vote Mogg and get Corbyn” card is a powerful rejoinder.

With the help of some big unions, Keir Starmer, assisted by that leaked memo written by Miliband aide, Tom Baldwin, seems to be trying to steer Labour towards a People’s Vote option on the final deal. That is despite the persistent ambiguity of Team Corbyn and the vocal opposition of the shadow cabinet’s Barry Gardiner and of Andy Burnham, ex-cabinet member, now elected Manchester mayor, who rails against an elite into which he was once fast-tracked.

Tom Watson is reported to have attended a barbecue at Peter Mandelson’s house, much as he once watched Postman Pat DVDs with Gordon Brown and their children in the Blair twilight. Plotting to thwart Brexit this time?

More prosaically, cabinet office minister, David Lidington, May’s sweeper since Damian Green retired hurt, wonders aloud if British negotiators might seek and win more time by stretching the A50 process beyond March 29.

Anything is possible, but it might be wise for all concerned to wrap things up before Steve Coogan returns to our screens with a new Alan Partridge series. Steve’s decided Alan is a Brexiteer and that they need more of a presence on the BBC.

Don’t look so glum, Nigel. There will always be room for you.

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