What’s Philip Hammond up to?
In the space of one weekend the chancellor went from being under attack by Brexiters for being insufficiently enthusiastic about the UK’s departure from the EU, to enduring criticism from Remainers after describing Brussels as “the enemy".
It’s a masterclass in how to lose friends and alienate people.
Perhaps his intemperate language was the result of over-reaching to reassure Leave supporters that he’s not attempting to sabotage the process, but if even hardened Tories wince, you know you’ve gone too far.
When Hammond has spoken about Brexit in recent months it is has tended to be to a City audience – offering a voice of sober realism (which the City likes) punctuated with a few punchy lines about combating European protectionism and delivering a bespoke deal for financial services.
His bizarre outburst about “the enemy” suggests he’s better at talking about the technical details of Brexit than he is at playing the Westminster politics behind it.
In truth, his dry and managerial approach to Brexit, though infuriating to Brexit-backing Tories, has played well with the business and City community.
Time and again Hammond is referred to in Square Mile conversations as ‘the grownup in the room’ – offering a reassuring voice amid the buccaneering attitude of Brexit’s more wide-eyed proponents.
Criticism that he’s being too gloomy is unfair; he is more alive than many in government to the concerns of financial and professional services, and the chest-beating optimism can be left to Boris Johnson and his newspaper columns.
What the chancellor can do, however, is recognise in his upcoming budget that Britain needs a dose of radicalism at home as well as in its Brexit negotiations.
Faced with the unambiguous threat of Corbyn’s economic policies, Hammond needs to find the shot that allows him to rebut Labour’s old-fashioned socialism while recognising the public appetite for a change of tack.
Shaving a few hundred quid off future tuition fee repayments and tinkering with Help to Buy (a middle-class subsidy that does nothing to reform the housing market) ain’t going to cut it.
If he wants to repair the damage done by his recent clumsy footwork, he’ll have to demonstrate a zeal for reform that many consider to be beyond the grasp of Spreadsheet Phil.