Ever the pragmatist, chancellor Philip Hammond is right to be bullish on Brexit

Christian May
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Chancellor Philip Hammond
Chancellor Philip Hammond was previously secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs (Source: Getty)

Philip Hammond isn’t known as Westminster’s most exciting MP.

He lacks the bombast of a Boris Johnson or the polished ambition of a George Osborne. And yet, he has emerged as one of the most respected figures of the post-referendum government, with many City figures viewing him as “the grownup in the room”.

Having backed the Remain campaign, he is more a ruthless pragmatist than a starry-eyed Brexiteer. Leaving the EU may not have been the outcome he sought, but now that we’re on that path he’s not prepared to simply limp down it, looking back with regret.

Read more: Bullish Hammond warns UK will "fight back" if unable to ink Brexit deal

At the start of the year, he warned that the UK is ready to greet a bad Brexit deal with aggressive tax competition – pledging that the government would do “whatever we had to do” to gain an advantage in the global economy.

Some Westminster-watchers didn’t know he had it in him.

Yesterday, he reiterated the promise and once again navigated the waters between that position and his preferred option of a good, equitable and beneficial new deal with the EU.

Read more: Chancellor expected to bank £12bn from borrowing outperformance in Budget

“We expect to be able to achieve a comprehensive free trade deal with our EU partners, but they should know that the alternative isn’t Britain just slinking away into a corner,” he said.

In striking this position, Hammond appears to acknowledge what the likes of Tony Blair and John Major haven’t: that Brexit is happening, the UK is now locked in a negotiation and the time for hand-wringing is over. Ahead of a Budget that itself comes just weeks ahead of the likely trigger date for Article 50, Hammond vowed that the UK stands ready to fight for the right deal and that we would not “slink off like a wounded animal”.

Read more: Britain could leave the EU without paying anything

Last week, Bloomberg produced some handy charts, showing the UK’s position of strength. We spend more on defence than any other EU country; we have the joint second-largest EU number of votes on the IMF board; our GDP per capita is much higher than the EU average and; we are at present the EU’s second largest cash contributor.

In other words, and to paraphrase the chancellor, the EU would be unwise to seek to wound us.

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