Philip Hammond is perhaps the first Goth to become in later life Chancellor of the Exchequer. The world owes this information to Richard Madeley, who before going into television was at Shenfield High School in Essex with Hammond, where he insists the future Chancellor was “a Goth” who “looked like Johnny Depp back in his pomp” and “used to arrive in class in a leather trench-coat with The Guardian under his arm.”
Hence the illustration accompanying this article. But on becoming Chancellor, Hammond revealed that “After making these shocking allegations, Richard Madeley did contact me to concede that actually on reflection, it probably was the Financial Times, not The Guardian.”
In order to take that possibility into account, ConHome has commissioned a second portrait by the brilliant Carla Millar, in which Hammond carries the FT instead of The Guardian. If the Chancellor objects to her use of the latter, we will happily use the former, at least when we remember to do so. Please could anyone who was at Shenfield at the same time, and can recall what paper he read, get in touch.
In the meantime, we have at least managed to establish that while at school, Hammond “had lovely long silky hair”, and would innocently take a girl’s hand as he walked down the street with her.
Hammond has long sought to guard his privacy by appearing to be less interesting than he really is. But now that he is the second most powerful figure in the Government, this pretence of dullness is becoming harder to sustain.
For Hammond can make or mar Theresa May’s premiership. As Daniel Finkelstein recently pointed out in The Times (£):
“The Prime Minister cannot have, to give a few examples, an effective industrial strategy, a policy on the financial sector, or a policy of targeting low-paid working families unless the Chancellor co-operates.”
Will the Chancellor’s stern belief in sound money, and his pro-business instincts, prove compatible with the Prime Minister’s egalitarian declarations, and her desire for an active regional policy? How will promoting trade be reconciled with controlling immigration?
Last weekend, an unknown “senior Conservative” briefed against Hammond in the Sunday Times (£), asserting that he is already “operating as a blocking mechanism” and is the “chief culprit” trying to prevent other ministers from pulling Britain out of the European single market.
The Chancellor will not be amused to find himself assaulted in the public prints. He has long been insistent – most conspicuously during his time as Defence Secretary, when he had the temerity to order senior officers not to talk to Max Hastings - that arguments about policy should be held within Government, after which everyone is bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility.
Unpopularity does not frighten Hammond, but a source close to him denies that he is operating as a blocking mechanism.
Yet Brexit – which ministers will discuss today at Chequers – is such a difficult and contentious subject, one can hardly expect the deep disagreements between ministers to remain confined to official circles. Hammond is about to become better known.
And there is more to know than one might have expected. Like May herself, Hammond has for most of his career refused to gratify the media’s thirst for personal revelations.
The similarities between them are striking. Both of them tend to prefer the politics of inscrutability and departmental grip to operating in the full glare of publicity.
Born within a year of each other – Hammond on 4th December 1955, May on 1st October 1956 – they both attended Oxford University from 1974-77, where indeed they first met.
Both of them entered the Commons in 1997, for seats in the London commuter belt – Runnymede and Weybridge for Hammond, Maidenhead for May – and the following year their ability and professionalism were recognised with the award of their first shadow portfolios.
In 2010, they both entered the Cabinet, May as Home Secretary and Hammond as Transport Secretary: he had prepared himself for the arduous role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but that went to a Liberal Democrat, who published the note left by Liam Byrne, his Labour predecessor: “I’m afraid there is no money.”
In 2011, when Hammond was promoted to the role of Defence Secretary, Bruce Anderson wrote of him on ConHome:
“His standing in the innermost circles is far higher than his public reputation. If George Osborne were run over tomorrow…Philip Hammond would be the obvious successor.”
As so often in questions of Tory personnel, Anderson was prescient. Hammond has indeed succeeded Osborne, who is 15 years younger than him, while May has taken over from Cameron, who is ten years younger than her.
These promotions offer hope to those of us born in the 1950s. Part of Jeremy Corbyn’s charm, to which so many old-fashioned members of the Left have succumbed, is that he even gives encouragement to people born in the 1940s, having himself first seen the light of day on 26th May 1949.
The cult of youth, which got out of hand under Tony Blair – at the age of 43, the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812, a record Cameron proceeded by a narrow margin to beat – is in retreat. No one complains that Hammond, at the age of 60, is too old to enter on his great responsibilities.
But what kind of a partner will he make for the Prime Minister? The Financial Times recently published an fascinating account of his business career, which revealed him to be more enterprising, and more of a risk-taker, than has generally been realised.
His ventures included running discos for teenagers in church halls, trading in cars from the nearby Ford works at Dagenham (he arrived with one of these at Oxford University), organising summer trips for Iranians to Oxford, reproducing brass rubbings for Americans, and in 1980 buying Speywood Medical, which made the electrodes and leads for electrocardiograph machines, for a pound, after which he tried without success to make a go of the firm.
In 1984, Hammond set up Castlemead, a house builder, with Terry Greyson, a surveyor from Billericay in Essex, who describes him as “straight as an arrow”, but also “inventive” and capable of getting things done:
“It’s a bit like John Major: he was always known as the grey man, wasn’t he? I can see why Philip might have that reputation but underneath he’s an absolute dynamo.”
At University College, Oxford, where he read PPE, Hammond formed a friendship with Colin Moynihan, an Olympic coxswain who became a Tory MP and sports minister (with Hammond acting as his unpaid assistant), and is now a peer.
He and Moynihan launched a string of business ventures together, with the latter saying of Hammond to the FT: “He always saw the opportunity. He was never not thinking about how to make money.”
Moynihan also related how amazingly reticent Hammond can be even with close friends:
“‘We hardly ever talk about anything except business and politics; we don’t even talk about where he went on holiday,’ said Lord Moynihan, who discovered how tight-lipped his friend could be in 1991 when Mr Hammond told him he was getting married. Lord Moynihan, then an MP, only then discovered that Mr Hammond — his local party chairman — was courting his election agent, Susan Williams-Walker.”
The Hammonds have three children. When I profiled him for the New Statesman, I recorded that she
“is described by another MP’s wife as ‘glamorous and fun, with a good sense of humour – she’s a good egg and there are very few wives who are prepared to get stuck in and do things’. Among the things Susie Hammond has done is to chair the Parliamentary Palace of Varieties in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support, an annual charity dinner at which peers and MPs perform. She has also organised ‘other half parties’ for MPs’ partners.”
Hammond has bone-dry views on the economy. He has said he “strongly believes…the first responsibility of government is to promote economic stability, sound money and prudent public finances.”
It would be surprising if, in the Autumn Statement, he starts splashing money around in the way some commentators have been urging him to do. He has a capacity to dig his heels in and defend what he considers to be the right policy.
And he is not a man who yields to merely convivial overtures. When someone suggested the two of them have a drink, he replied in a puzzled tone: “Why?”
In 2013, while serving as Defence Secretary, Hammond managed to annoy Number Ten in a number of ways. He warned that it was impossible to make further defence cuts “without eroding military capability”, and instead urged that “we have to look at the welfare budget again”.
He opposed the introduction of same-sex marriage, saying there was “a real sense of anger among many people who are married” that the Government “thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage”.
And on Europe, Hammond sided with another rebellious Cabinet minister: “If the choice is between an EU exactly as it is today and not being a part of that then I have to say I’m on the side of the argument that Michael Gove has put forward.”
Until becoming Foreign Secretary in 2014, Hammond was regarded as a Eurosceptic. His views about the EU then softened, as had those of his predecessor, William Hague.
So Hammond is capable of pragmatic compromise when he wishes. It is hard to imagine his relations with May ever breaking down as badly as Gordon Brown’s with Alistair Darling, or Tony Blair’s with Gordon Brown, or Margaret Thatcher’s with Nigel Lawson and indeed, at the end, with Geoffrey Howe.
Nor are Hammond and May ever going to be as close as Cameron and Osborne. These two professionals will wish to convey an impression of impregnable calm and competence.
But they will often keep their own counsel, will sometimes oppose each other with great forcefulness behind closed doors, and will be very angry when pressure is applied to them by means of leaks.
The possibility of explosions cannot after all be excluded. Hammond may no longer look like a Goth, but his opponents will from time to time accuse him of behaving like one.