Philip Hammond was, claims one of his friends, born to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. That might have been true in normal times, if the economy was ambling along and the job involved keeping order in the public finances. As it is, the post requires some oomph right now because of Brexit.
Hammond is an able and nice guy with good motivations and a back story that marks him out as someone who should have natural appeal to entrepreneurs and aspirational voters. Also, his wife is super smart.
But his baffling behaviour in the last week – after a weird few months – is so erratic that I can only conclude that perhaps he is simply not very good at politics.
A row at cabinet last week, after Michael Gove suggested a weekly update on prep for a “no deal” outcome in case, convinced Hammond to go on the offensive. The result, a piece he wrote for The Times and related briefing, had him cast being opposed to preparing properly. He followed this up with an appearance at the Treasury Select Committee that was so miserable – planes will not be able to land – that it was jaw-dropping. Last week it was clear the Prime Minister might have to fire the Foreign Secretary. Now the Chancellor is auditioning for the chop too.
In an interview with Sky News on Friday he tried to sound robust and patriotic and come out sounding just wrong. He described the EU as “the enemy” in these negotiations. Enemy? They’re our neighbours. Hammond is supposed to be one of those making the case for compromise and a productive future trading relationship.
Now, having squandered his political capital, Hammond is planning a “big, bold” Budget this Autumn to regenerate a struggling government, his diminishing band of supporters say. It looks – if he makes it to the Budget – more as though it will have to be big and bold to save his cabinet career.
In years to come, I suspect people will ask how it was that Hammond became Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor when the tricky business of politics – reading opponents, detecting the flow of events, smiling, even cheering people up sometimes – was not his thing.
My Reaction colleague Maggie Pagano tackled the broader question of Hammond in the latest edition of her weekly email exclusive for subscribers to Reaction. It is a terrific read on his conversion from supposed Eurosceptic to wet blanket.
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