When Theresa May made Philip Hammond her Chancellor there were plenty of gags about two-thirds of the Top Gear presenting panel being at the head of the Government.
But the true significance of the appointment of an ardent Remainer to the Treasury by the hesitant Remainer who found herself in 10 Downing Street was not appreciated at the time.
Most commentary focused on Mrs May allegedly putting the Brexiteers “in charge of Brexit” via her appointments of David Davis to the Department for Exiting the EU, Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office and Liam Fox to head the new Department for International Trade.
With two of those three Brexiteers having departed in the wake of a Chequers debacle that had, in any case, confirmed their comprehensive sidelining and the third reduced to twiddling his thumbs in what has become a pointless non-job, we can now better appreciate just how fateful was May’s appointment of Hammond.
I firmly believe that with a committed Brexiteer in the Treasury, Brexit could have withstood the doubts of a Prime Minister who gave only whispered support for the Remain side during the referendum.
But by putting in place as Chancellor a desiccated purveyor of discredited Treasury orthodoxy, Mrs May by accident or design – who knows which? – made the attainment of a full Brexit nigh-on impossible for her administration.
Downing Street may well have issued the latest in a series of meaningless “slapdowns” to Hammond over his latest act of torpedoing preparations for a possible “No Deal” departure from the EU by rolling out more ludicrous long-term scary numbers, but Mrs May has never acted to change the Treasury’s tune.
That has meant that her proclamation in her Lancaster House speech that “no deal is better than a bad deal” has never been fleshed out with well-resourced preparations for such an outcome. Hammond has bad-mouthed the very idea of no deal and failed to finance anything like the scale of preparatory measures needed to convince Brussels we could walk away from the farce of these negotiations.
This has emboldened the European Commission side to play hardball and pocket concession after concession while offering none in return. To use a motoring analogy for our Top Gear couple, Hammond has reduced May to the status of someone who enters a car showroom and blurts out that she has no option but to buy the vehicle she is inquiring about no matter what price the salesman states.
Had a Brexiteer Chancellor instead energised No Deal preparations, rolling out news of extra customs officers, checkpoint facilities, progress on trade deals with third countries and imaginative plans for supporting the economy using the £10bn net a year we would be saving – as well as the £39bn no longer going on farewell payments to the EU and potential extra tariff revenue too – then by now it would be Brussels and not Britain under the most pressure.
None of that has happened. Instead, Mrs May is offering an ever higher price while the European Commission just keeps shaking its head. Because it knows – or thinks it knows – that Britain really cannot walk away.
It is this combination of a dithering premier and a pro-Remain Chancellor with a tin ear for democracy that has proved so treacherous to the enormous mandate of 23rd June 2016. That was a mandate that absolutely required the Government to make the key elements the British people had decided upon – control of laws, borders and money – non-negotiable. This in turn required “No Deal” to be the default option and to receive serious resources and attention.
Instead, we have Hammond and the Treasury acting as a roadblock and May’s Downing Street confining itself to mild admonishment in briefings against the Chancellor that are presumably designed to placate Eurosceptics but actually fool no one. The betrayal of all of Brexit’s main elements that was set out in the Chequers plan is thus best seen as Hammond’s fault, but May’s responsibility.
This is why all Brexiteers should be demanding and promoting changes right at the top of the Government. A new Prime Minister, but a new Chancellor too. There is, just, time for the Conservative Party to reset the Brexit process and in doing so keep faith with the millions of Brexit voters who for now form the bulk of its political support. But, be under no illusions, this will require the removal vans to pitch up to both Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street.
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