Philip Hammond’s Times article today is striking not for its content, which reflects what he is already known to believe, but its timing. Mid-August usually sees the dog days of the Westminster calendar; its quietest period other than the Christmas holidays. Yet the former Chancellor has chosen to break cover now.
The reason is easy to grasp. Boris Johnson’s new government is dominating the political news, racking up new policy announcements almost daily: more NHS money, stop and seach, police, skilled migration. Whatever one thinks of the practicability of some of these plans, they show a verve that departed Theresa May’s Government at the same time as Nick Timothy.
There is a sense that the Prime Minister will go for a No Deal Brexit if necessary by October 31, and that his aim is simple while that of his opponents is confused. Will they go for a No Confidence vote when Parliament returns? Will they seek to force a futher extension on the Government instead? Is either gambit practicable? Do they agree? Meanwhile, Johnson really seems set on that end of October deadline, “do or die”. That’s why Dominic Cummings is in place. He is the man for either – by, as he has found a way of reminding us, “any means necessary”.
Hence Hammond’s rush to print today. It would be easy to respond by pointing out that if No Deal happens, and its start turns out to be turbulent, the blame will partly, perhaps even largely, lie with him. After all, the Treasury is the department responsible for oiling the wheels of the Government’s planned response to such an event. That Sajid Javid is now busy applying the oil is a reminder that his precedessor did not – as fully as he might have done, anyway. But there was a deeper significance to Hammond’s lack of urgency.
Like the other former Cabinet Ministers who have come out in his support today, the former Chancellor fought the last election on a manifesto that said that No Deal would be better than a bad deal. Hammond will say that Theresa May’s deal was not a bad one, and that the question of No Deal being better should not arise in that context. But whatever one thinks of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Agreement, this defence is beside the point.
Which is that the former Chancellor never supported No Deal as a last resort at all. He believes that it will be deeply damaging – that’s clear from his Times piece today, were his view on the matter in any doubt (which is wasn’t). His article suggests that Johnson is acting dishonestly in claiming that he wants a deal. But with all due respect to Hammond, the dishonesty is his: for not preparing fully – and deliberately at that – for an outcome to which he was formally committed, at a time when he was the second-most senior figure in the Government.
If he now wants to campaign against a policy which he undermined, so be it. That is his right. But if he or any other Conservative MP does not support the Prime Minister in a vote of confidence, they should lose the whip, and thus be ineligible to stand as Tory candidates in any ensuing election. That is the norm.
Above all, Hammond’s interpretation of the referendum result is at odds with the most natural reading of it. The ballot paper didn’t ask the British people whether they wanted to leave with a deal or without one: it simply asked them whether they wanted to Leave or Remain. They voted to Leave. May’s deal has failed.
And while No Deal might well be economically turbulent, No Brexit would be politically calamitous. It would be viewed as the present extension is already seen by a mass of voters: as the flicking of two fingers by the Commons at the biggest electoral verdict in our country’s history. Not to mention the breaking of a pledge given over a hundred times by Johnson’s predecessor: namely, to leave the EU by March 29th this year.
The damage done in consequence to trust in politics – not to mention the smaller matter of the Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes – threatens to be very serious indeed. It happened on Hammond’s watch. He may be in the news this morning, but he has had his day none the less.