Forcing out Philip Hammond would reveal Theresa May’s weakness

Pragmatic people appear unwelcome in Brexit-era public life

This time last year, another technocrat of crisp appearance, whose decisions could swing the British economy this way or that, was pressed to resign by Conservative Eurosceptics. They saw his concern with detail as obstruction by other means. Although their preferred replacement was unclear, the premise that EU exit would work if elites would just believe in it, as though the material world bends to such abstractions as faith and enthusiasm, implied an audacious bid for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

That hostile pursuit of Bank of England governor Mark Carney was always going to move on to someone else. Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, was always next. The question is whether he has the wiles that equipped Carney not just to survive but to renew his term and leave foreign investors grateful for the fact.

If Theresa May removes Hammond, as demanded by Tories who doubt his commitment to Brexit, it will add to the archive of bad decisions that she has compiled as prime minister. And not because Hammond is a distinguished chancellor. He manages the technical basics of the job well enough but fumbles the politics. Like May, he rose because of the widespread but baseless hunch that people with little outward charisma must possess great depth by way of cosmic balance.

In normal times, his demotion would pass without event. In these times, however, it would tell the world some unattractive things about Britain. Pragmatic people are unwelcome in public life, for one. The government is remote-controlled by backbench ideologues, for another. Rigour in economic policy is giving way to faith-based approaches. And there are more capitulations to the mob to come.


May’s enfeeblement

It was not just weakness that Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, described as provocative, it was the "perception of weakness" too. Had May sacked her chancellor in the spring, when the two fell out over an unpopular budget, she might have spun it as an act of strength. To remove him now, under duress from her party, would just put her enfeeblement beyond all doubt. It would tell outsiders that Britain's ultimate lure – the soundness of its politics – has gone.

It would also incentivise the Tory right to make further demands, namely the promotion of Michael Gove from environment secretary to chancellor in a move that even his friends must know would not suit his particular aptitudes.

Before he became the Brexit secretary, David Davis argued that Europe's reliance on British consumers would force it into generous exit terms. The fashion houses of Lombardy, the car plants of Bavaria, the wine estates of the Rhone – these industries would weigh more than the EU's political interest in the punishment of a defector nation.

Well, six months into the process, that moment of surrender should be here any day now. Instead, Britain is caving on several fronts to hasten a transition deal, while May gets involved to salvage talks that were meant to be Davis’s picnic in the park.

Common sense

We are seriously talking about Hammond’s dismissal while this hit-and-hope merchant soars to second favourite to replace May. Whatever is wrong with the government, it is not a slightly unimaginative chancellor. Hammond has no compelling claim on the job and may yet bungle another budget next month. But May should understand how strange his removal would look to a world that views him, at worst, as an irrelevance and, at best, as a silo of common sense in a political landscape overrun with hot heads.

The migration of Conservative anger from Carney to Hammond was not just predictable, it was predicted. The mystery is who the roving gunsight moves to next. Jeremy Heywood, the most senior civil servant, should brace for some hard months. Tories already whisper about his default Europeanism and his alleged unpreparedness for an abrupt exit that they themselves claim would be benign.

Do not pity these individuals, who entered public life in full knowledge of its roughness. Just admire the self-exculpatory resourcefulness of their critics. They blame the human element because the alternative is to admit to a germ of doubt about their mission itself.

For a project that skews to the right, Brexit has come to resemble nothing so much as socialism: a good idea that just happens to be let down always and everywhere by the bad faith of the people who enact it. “Dreams do come true,” say the boys who never grow up, “if only we wish hard enough.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017