Philip Hammond’s whole career as Chancellor has been leading up to this moment. Next week, in his Spring Statement, he’ll say that MPs have a choice: back the EU’s deal, or go for a no-deal Brexit for which government has failed to prepare. Without any serious leadership for the latter, it’s unlikely to pass. The Prime Minister is snookered. He has won. He was against Brexit and has not quite stopped fighting those who advocated it – on the radio yesterday he distinguished himself from “the Brexit wing of the party.” But he has second best: a Brexit deal which is EU membership in all but name. Perhaps to be followed by a proper Brexit, perhaps not. And why is Theresa May unable to negotiate anything better? Because no one can negotiate anything without the threat of walking away. Why is she unable to threaten that? Because Philip Hammond has been so effective in making sure that a no-deal Brexit didn’t fly. I look at his achievement in my Daily Telegraph column today.
When May lost her majority, she lost control. “She’s a prisoner of the Cabinet now,” one of its members told me at the time. Half of that Cabinet had voted for Brexit, and half for Remain. Both knew they could try and steer this ship, if they knew how. Hammond knew how. The Treasury has lots of levers to pull and ways of choking off ideas with which it disagrees. It was in charge of financing no-deal planning: or, rather, refusing to finance it. Even as late as December 2017 he was refusing to spend serious cash urging patience and promising – cross his heart! – that it would all be ready. When he eventually decided to spend, it was too late – and clear that things would not be ready. Or, rather, ready enough to stop widespread panic.
Cabinet members are saying that they are not nearly as worried as they were about a no-deal Brexit – and I agree. Allister Heath brilliantly exploded some of the myths behind no deal in his column this week. Today, the Centre for Policy Studies (on whose board I sit) publishes a manifesto for no-deal Brexit – it’s very doable. But not without leadership. This is, alas, all about realpolitik. Next week, if May’s deal falls, Parliament will be asked to choose between no-deal or begging the EU for an extension. It’s likely to choose the latter.
When the history of this part of Brexit is written (probably by Tim Shipman) I imagine Hammond will emerge not as an embattled terrified, paralysed loser but an active, shrewd player who knew exactly what he wanted – and got it.