Give thanks for Spreadsheet Phil, our unlikely saviour

Published by The ipaper (31st July, 2017)

I never thought I would say this, but give thanks and praises for Philip Hammond. Yes, I know he is a dour figure in public, a dry Right-winger who rose with little trace from running teenage discos to his dream job at the Treasury. But at a time when it looks like the lunatics have taken over Westminster’s asylum, with most politicians appearing terrifyingly clueless on the biggest issue of our day, the Chancellor has seemed a rock standing between his nation and catastrophic hard Brexit.

Hammond was set to be sacked had his boss not self-exploded in such spectacular style at last month’s election. Now Theresa May is diminished, cutting a tragic figure as she clings to impotent power, and he has seized the opportunity of political vacuum to stamp his mark on the exit process from Europe. No wonder those charlatans who sold voters a phoney dream of self-control are so angered by his sensible approach, privately branding him a traitor as he seeks to head off the most devastating damage from this breach with Brussels.

The Chancellor – acting fast while Theresa May was on holiday and Boris Johnson doing his tedious shtick on the other side of the planet – appears to have won wide support for a transition deal to stop the country spinning over a cliff-edge in March 2019. This will ensure little real change to our relationship with the European Union, leaving it looking ‘similar in many ways’ until 2022 despite formal departure. It may rely on an off-the-shelf deal. If we are lucky this will last, like Norway’s supposedly temporary deal, thereby protecting the country from more corrosive Brexit models.

So credit to Hammond for acting like an adult as he mops up the mess left by childish colleagues. Already he has been attacked by David Jones, a shallow figure rightly sacked as deputy Brexit minister. No doubt other hardliners will have tantrums too, demanding ideological purity regardless of cost and complaining of betrayal. But their duplicitous claims are melting fast in face of reality. Rather predictably, we look more and more likely to move from being just inside the club – with influence, freedoms and rebates but no common currency – to being just outside, a diminished and weakened nation.

Those who sold Brexit still struggle to define their destination, let alone publicly determine which migrants they want to stop coming to our shores to meet a silly target. Yet International Trade Secretary Liam Fox bleats about not agreeing a deal to allow free movement after departure. Perhaps those nationalists and naive liberal leavers on the Tory right who have bought us to this point should pause to consider one potential outcome of their selfish behaviour as both mainstream parties struggle to control profound divisions.

The Tory party remains trapped in post-election paralysis. Fearful of attempting legislation that might be defeated, the Government will struggle to achieve anything significant and end up defined by Brexit. But departure is shaping up a disastrous shambles; even at best, it will be disruptive and fail to deliver on promises made to voters. And as former Tory MP Matthew Parris noted in a scathing weekend column, ‘the fingerprints for this crime of mismanagement are Tory fingerprints’.

Labour shares some culpability for this dismal situation. Jeremy Corbyn can be an electrifying campaigner, as seen in the election campaign, yet went missing in the referendum fight. This helped ensure the small majority voting to leave. Suspicion remains he is hostile to Brussels, like many on the hard left, once attacking efforts to ‘create a huge free-market Europe’. Now having conned cosmopolitan voters who saw him as their saviour, Corbyn sits there hopeful he can patch over his own party divisions long enough to see the Tories implode and hand him power.

It is depressing to see Labour’s refusal to represent voters seeking an alternative on the central political issue of our time. Instead Corbyn echoes May by insisting Britain must pull out of the single market, then his shadow Trade Secretary chucks in withdrawal from the customs union as well. This is made worse by their flirtation with dark forces of xenophobia, with Corbyn complaining of ‘wholesale importation of underpaid workers’ – ignoring both economic reality and the rights of individuals.

Yet if – and it is a big if – Labour can hold together long enough, there is fair chance Corbyn will win the keys to Downing Street. And here is the great irony: the actions of Right-wing Tory hardliners, so oblivious to the consequences of their Europhobic obsession, would gift a hard-left opposition leader the opportunity to shape post-Brexit Britain. And in doing so he would be unconstrained by the rules of Brussels – which he sees as a barrier to building socialism – as he rips apart a liberal economic consensus that has dominated our nation with such success for decades.

What a curious potential twist of history. At the start of this year a bullish Prime Minister summoned European diplomats to lay down her terms on Brexit. She warned them imperiously that she would walk away from discussions and turn Britain into a low-tax rival if she did not get her desired deal. Her tough talk delighted Tory hardliners. But now it seems far more likely their fanaticism might lead to an experiment in high-tax, free-spending socialism. Forget Singapore; the looming model is closer to Venezuela. One more reason to give thanks in these strange times for Spreadsheet Phil and his adult approach.

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