Politicians don’t always tell the truth – just like the rest of us. But there is no reason to doubt the veracity of Phillip Hammond’s farewell letter to his constituents, in which he explains why he will not contest the coming general election as a candidate.
In a nutshell, he says that he would like to have stood as a Conservative candidate; cannot do so, because the Conservative whip was removed from him, but won’t stand as an independent. This is because doing so “would represent a direct challenge…to the party I have supported all my adult life”.
One would expect nothing less from a man who has held two of the great offices of state – Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary – and who, as he himself points out, has 22 years service as a Conservative MP, 12 years as an Opposition front bench spokesman and over nine years as a Cabinet Minister.
But hang on a moment. Hammond would be a Tory candidate today – like Damian Hinds and Karen Bradley and Mel Stride and many others – had he not lost the whip. Like those other one-time Remainers and former top table Ministers, he would be awaiting his return to the Commons as a Conservative backbencher.
It will be said – indeed, Hammond says himself – that the removal of the whip last month was unfair. There is a case for taking that view, although he can’t say (and presumably wouldn’t say) that he wasn’t warned. It was made clear to Tory MPs that those who supported the motion in question would be treated in that way.
However, it couldn’t truthfully be claimed that Hammond’s fate was sealed the moment that the whip was removed. For, after all, ten of the 20 other Conservative MPs who, like Hammond, lost the whip that day have recently had it restored – including, by the way, the other Hammond: Stephen (no relation).
So why wasn’t it returned to the former Chancellor, too? Why has the more junior Stephen lived to fight another day as a Tory candidate, but the very senior Philip not done so? The answer is not hard to work out. It can be found in the latter’s recent voting record.
In late September, for example, Hammond failed to support the Government’s motion for a conference recess – part of the battle over prorogation. Earlier that month, he also abstained over its bid to force an early general election. Earlier still, he did the same on a previous motion.
Above all, he voted against the programme motion for the Second Reading of the new EU Withdrawal Bill. Admittedly, the decision to restore the whip to some of the 21 is almost as controversial as the original one which took it away from all of them.
Nonetheless, Hammond has no cause for complaint. Independent MPs must be expected sometimes to oppose the Government. But not, surely, if their aim is to have the Tory whip restored. And nine of the ten who got it back duly voted for that programme motion. Hammond didn’t, and would have known the risk he was running.
So if he wanted to contest the election as a Conservative candidate, why on earth wasn’t he more accomodating – like, say, Greg Clark? Why was he all but asking for trouble? This site has no window to look into Hammond’s soul (if that is not too numinous a word for so unesoteric a figure). But we will hazard a guess.
It is that Hammond was overcome by exasperation with the Prime Minister – with the drama over prorogation; with the attempt to consider the Withdrawal Bill in very short order, with previous attempts to force an election. And that this annoyance duly kept him out of the Government lobby when others among the 21 were willing to go back into it.
Such an explanation would be all of a piece with his original decision to defy the Whip in the first place. It was taken away from the 21 because they voted for a motion introduced by Oliver Letwin. The motion paved the way for the introduction of what was to become Benn Act – the measure that prepared the ground for a further extension.
Why did Hammond do all this – programme motion, Letwin motion, the lot? Because he wanted to “take No Deal off the table”: there’s no great mystery about that. Again, the driving motive will have been all to do with Johnson. Hammond believed that the latter was seeking a No Deal Brexit, and that it was his duty to try to stop him.
We have news for Hammond. The Prime Minister never wanted a No Deal Brexit. His logic was that if you want a deal, you must prepare for No Deal – along the lines of the general principle that if you want peace, prepare for war. Johnson believed that the threat of No Deal would incentivise the EU to agree a deal. Who can say he was wrong?
If a bunch of jobbing hacks on a Tory website could work this out, why couldn’t so well-placed an insider as the former Chancellor? Again, we chance a guess, but believe we are on solid ground. It is that Hammond has joined the long list of people driven mad by Boris Johnson.
It would be impertinent to set this out in full, thus embarrassing other people, so this site will identify only one other victim – itself. As Comment Editor of the Daily Telegraph, responsible for handling Johnson’s then column, I was driven nuts by his evasiveness about content, selfishness, amorality and unwillingness to file on time.
No less saintly a figure than Charles Moore, then the paper’s editor, once spiked his column – for much the same reason. Yes, even this greatest of all living Englishman temporarily lost all sense of proportion. More were to follow where Moore trod, including Michael Howard, Sayeeda Warsi and the entire population of Liverpool.
Let’s call what possessed all of us Boris Derangement Syndrome, for want of a better phrase. And let us not forget its most illustrious victim: Michael Gove, who destroyed his own Prime Ministerial ambitions in a moment of Johnson-induced midnight madness.
These heartrending stories help to explain why this site is concerned about Hammond’s peace of mind. Especially since the symptoms of Boris Derangement Syndrome are most severe among those of the former Chancellor’s temperament – diligent, sober, serious-minded people who think that they are cleverer than, well, Johnson himself.
They – sorry, we – also believe that they are better: more moral, more upright. This is a very stupid thing to think. For can we really be so sure? Take the beam out of thy own eye, Goodman, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
In any event, getting angry with the Prime Minister is a bit like getting angry with Falstaff. It isn’t so much right or wrong as irrelevant – since Falstaff will always carry on being Falstaff. Like many in the Westminster Village, Hammond doesn’t seem to see this. But Johnson didn’t get where he is today without millions of voters doing so.