The strange reinvention of Philip Hammond

Facing the sack, the notoriously dull chancellor has suddenly come to life. He isn’t the only new rebel Boris Johnson will have to contend with

July 17, 2019
Placeholder image!

Sixteen years ago, Iain Duncan Smith gave his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference. "To the prime minister I say this,” he announced to the crowd; “the quiet man is here to stay and he's turning up the volume.”

In the end, he wasn’t and he didn’t; IDS resigned later that month, and headed back to (temporary) backbench oblivion. Meanwhile, another quiet man who had been in that fateful room was biding his time—but he is now ready to speak out.

Seen as a safe pair of hands by successive Tory leaders, Philip Hammond has managed to spend the past 21 years on the frontbench precisely because wherever he went, not much happened. Could you say anything about his record as secretary of state for defence? Foreign secretary? Dull and dour, his image eventually led to the (semi-affectionate) nickname “Spreadsheet Phil.”

Yet by the end of this month, he will be on the backbenches for the first time since 1998. Boris Johnson is the favourite to become prime minister and the two do not see eye to eye, and neither do their Brexit ambitions.

As a result, unexpected signs of life keep being spotted in those late Treasury days. Just this week, it emerged that in a speech to civil servants, Hammond said: "It has not escaped my attention that the next prime minister’s majority will be only three, and that I will be a backbencher."

In an interview with US broadcaster CNBC, he made his intentions even clearer, warning that “if the new government tries to drive the UK over a cliff-edge called no-deal Brexit, I will do everything I can to stop that happening.” As he told Bloomberg, that could include supporting legal action. On Monday, he poured cold water on the prospect of a speedy US trade deal, despite this being a priority for the likely next occupant of No 10.

This should worry Johnson. Firstly, as political scientist Philip Cowley explains, “ex-ministers that go rogue can be a problem for governments. It's not just that they add to the number of rebels—although with a wafer thin majority even that is currently hardly trivial—but that they lend gravitas and knowledge to any rebellions. It's more voice than vote; an ex-chancellor can cause a lot more damage than someone who never made it to junior minister for paper clips.”

Because he was so obedient for so long, whatever Hammond does decide to rebel on will be seen as worthy of attention. Unlike independent-minded MPs who’ve never met a hill they wouldn’t die on, such a loyal senior figure deciding to turn against his leadership may well inspire others.

“His views were quite orthodox Treasury views,” says a former senior Treasury figure. “Fiscally conservative, sceptical about Brexit but only in the same way the Treasury was also more sceptical of big European political projects, like the euro.... The fact he might become a subversive on the backbenches is a sign of how far the Tories have shifted.”

This is the crux of the matter; Hammond is an unusual rebel because these are unusual times. With the Overton Window having shifted so far towards the hardest of Brexits, otherwise silent figures now feel forced to make their voices heard.

Hammond isn’t the only one, of course; look at the remarkably similar career paths of Greg Clark and David Gauke and you can see an unlikely backbench triumvirate emerging.

As it happens, an MP currently rumoured to be headed the opposite direction is Iain Duncan Smith; heaven knows if he will spot the irony in his party’s quiet men taking their chance to turn up the volume.