With Boris Johnson in, and Theresa May out, it looks like the shaking-all-about might finally loosen one of the UK’s most wretched politicians from the top of the government. Yes, let’s assess the career of the Chancellor Philip Hammond. Any chancellor has the future of the country in their hands, with their power to invest massive resources and to shape the evolution of our economy. Yet in one survey last December, Hammond’s odds of becoming prime minister were placed at 50/1, on a par with those of the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat and the widely derided Defence Minister Gavin Williamson. This shows the extent to which a Great Office of State has been shrunken to irrelevance under Hammond’s tenure.
With Hammond, what should be the most important chapter of the story is currently languishing as a footnote. Were you or I to ever unexpectedly find ourselves as Chancellor of the Exchequer, we would surely try to use its power to achieve something huge. I, for one, would want to promote regenerative medicine and stem cell technology. Another person might champion robotics, or set up a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme, or overhaul the planning system. Hammond, however, has only ever used his power to obstruct the plans of politicians who have considerably less influence than he has. Moreover, now that he is threatening to bring down Johnson’s administration, it seems that he will paradoxically grow more politically active, and wield greatly more power, from the backbenches than he had ever done in the heart of government.
During my twenties, there seemed to be a long period in British politics that was consumed by the question of whether the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had Told A Lie. Blair stood accused of having “sexed-up” a “dodgy dossier” in order to persuade the UK’s gormless parliamentarians to authorise an invasion of Iraq, one of the poorest and most demilitarised nations on Earth, on the basis that it was a threat to our security. You might think that no amount of deceit could have made a country ground down to powder by international sanctions appear credibly dangerous. But our MPs were apparently reliant upon independent experts to tell them how menacing this visibly depleted nation really was. And on such a cryptic question, Blair had Told A Lie.
A cover of Private Eye from 2003 showed Blair insisting that “I have never told a lie,” whilst over his shoulder Alastair Campbell despaired “Whoops! There’s another one.” At anti-war marches, the letters of Blair’s name were routinely rearranged, to spell out Tony B-Liar. Amongst the judiciary, reports and inquiries attempted to contemplate delicately hinting that Blair had lied to parliament. Protesters called for him to be arrested and deported to The Hague to be tried for “war crimes.” It was universally felt that Blair had told a detectable untruth and that only judicial incompetence or cowardice had allowed him to get away with it.
At a similarly exalted level of geopolitics, Philip Hammond has likewise sewn dishonesty vastly amongst the people, the parliament, and the international community. His own lie was that, “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Yet, unlike with Blair, Hammond has gotten away with it without inciting any widespread indignation.
You might point out that there is no record of Hammond having ever threatened the EU with no-deal. He merely stood to be the second most powerful politician in the country under a manifesto that said this. He merely served in partnership with a prime minister who had made this her central negotiating gambit. And one of the things that had qualified him for his role was his initial Euro-scepticism and his willingness to entertain the possibility that the UK could become “the tax haven of Europe.” When asked by Welt am Sonntag in 2017 how far the UK would diverge from the Eurozone, he had replied that, “if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different.” He has since spent £4.2bn on no-deal preparations.
As with Blair’s WMDs, Hammond’s invisible no-deal preparations are a lie that has come to haunt the entire country and hang over it like a choking smog. Johnson had famously printed a lie across the side of a bus, but it is unclear what influence this campaign pledge had ever exerted over the electorate. Hammond’s dishonesty has had far greater implications for the future of the economy and, quite weirdly, considering the contemporary clamour for “evidence-based” policymaking, it has received far less scrutiny. Even so, Hammond has gradually ripened into honesty. At first, there were tactical silences and a half-hearted pretence that the country was preparing to leave the EU on WTO terms. Now that he is being prised from power, he has admitted that he had never agreed with the strategy of the government in which he has served for over three years as Chancellor.
In an interview with Le Monde last Wednesday, he promised to do everything in his power to frustrate what has been his own government’s policy and certainly its manifesto commitment. As the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson has noted, “in the old days, if you fundamentally disagreed with the policy you were asked to implement, you would have had the decency to resign.” His correspondent James Forsyth (this was in the Coffee House Shots podcast) called Hammond’s interview “one of the most irresponsible acts by a British politician that I can think of in recent years.”
It all adds to the ingloriousness of the EU. The project continues to stagger on, waiting to be rescued by some change of heart from the electorate that still hasn’t occurred after three years and sustained in the meantime by discreet acts of duplicity from politicians such as Hammond. If the EU survives and its history comes to be written, it will be a sad book that is full of broken promises and tawdry deceptions. A big book of smallness.
It fits perfectly that a chancellor who is as fatalistically resigned to anaemic economic growth as Hammond would be unconditionally devoted to EU membership. What is for us a mere absence of imagination becomes for Hammond a stern economic inevitability. For him, a chancellor has no real power over the economy. They are basically a civil servant and they are meant to simply husband the economy’s diminishing returns. You have the impression that if GDP suddenly rose by 5%, it would be the most extraordinary surprise to Hammond and that he would struggle to believe his senses. And if millions of people are relying upon these revenues for their health or education then, for him, they will just have to wait. There should be no unseemly urgency in investing for the future – that would be cheap and it would only appeal to crass populism.
Instead, the UK should combine with the EU in its elegant waltz of long-term decline. Take my arm, darling – a prim 0.2% of growth here, a stately 0.1% there. The whole world is winding down whilst this ghastly political cadaver nods along. In this, Hammond is the very epitome of Conservatism – of the Tory faith that free markets will somehow magically produce growth, even when these markets comprise desiccated monopolies and crippling risk aversion.
Happily, Hammond’s absence of energy might benefit Brexit. It is not certain if he can field a parliamentary majority against no-deal (i.e. amongst Conservatives who are fearful that voting down their government will bring in Jeremy Corbyn). But there is a broader strategic problem that a second referendum, which is the logical endpoint of Hammond’s conniving, looks likely to coincide with a recession on the continent. At the very moment when the UK’s voters are being manipulated into correcting their folly of voting for more democracy, the EU’s supposed cornucopia of jobs and growth will appear even more mediocre than normal. And people such as Hammond have neither the passion nor the intellect to reimagine the EU as an economic dynamo.
So here ends my superfluous obituary of Philip Hammond, a chancellor who has never in any political sense been discernibly alive.