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Is game-playing going on asks Chris Moncrieff

By Chris Moncrieff | In-depth | Published: | Last Updated:

The Chancellor Philip Hammond appears to be playing a dangerous game over Brexit. Chris Moncrieff asks how the Prime Minister will respond to this crisis, which is threatening to seriously damage Cabinet unity

Is Philip Hammond smarter than he seems?

n Is 'spreadsheet Phil' Hammond the most bumbling, blundering Chancellor of the Exchequer in living memory, whose political antennae, if indeed he ever had any, have simply withered out of existence?

Or is he, in fact, much smarter than most people have given him credit for, and just pretending to be gormless? My feeling is that Hammond is indeed a lot smarter, acute and well-meaning than many people have suggested.

Sometimes, you cannot help but get the impression that Hammond, who has been accused of near-sabotage over Brexit, is taunting the Prime Minister to take drastic action over his post. A rampant Hammond on the Tory backbenches could be real trouble for Theresa May.

Is he really so innocent that he thought scoffing lobster in an upmarket Chelsea restaurant with his predecessor George Osborne would pass unnoticed?

He must have known Osborne’s comments about the Prime Minister have been little short of vicious, describing her as a ‘dead woman walking’ and saying he would like to see her chopped up in packets and put in the freezer.

And then, in contrast to what the Prime Minister has been saying, Hammond described the EU as ‘the enemy’ only to say a short time later he regretted his choice of words. All that sounds a bit flip-flop and careless for a man who holds the taxpayers’ purse strings.

Some top Tory politicians, including Lord Lawson, another former Chancellor, came close to describing Hammond as a Brexit saboteur.

So the Prime Minister faces a dilemma. Dumping your Chancellor is no minor matter, but how long can she tolerate this continued behaviour from a Chancellor who does not bother even to be subtle in his machinations?

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Normally, Hammond’s speeches throw the Commons into a kind of corporate torpor. But he has certainly shaken people awake in the last few weeks.

Whatever happens, I think we can safely promise Theresa May a bumpy, even tumultuous, Parliamentary ride between now and Christmas.

n Is there any prospect of turning that insufferable bore Nick Clegg into a Trappist monk? He continues relentlessly to whinge about the Remainers’ defeat in the referendum last year. He has the classic bad loser’s “we was robbed” attitude to the way the nation voted for Brexit.

Clegg, a former Liberal Democrat leader and ex-deputy Prime Minister, has been ejected from Parliament by voters in Sheffield, Hallam and the Remainers’ case was roundly rejected at the referendum.

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If the Remainers believe they should have won, they should have conducted a better and far more convincing campaign. But for the likes of Nick Clegg, it is never too late to whinge.

Not only has he been calling for a second referendum (bad enough), but urging that voters below a certain age should get two votes each (appalling).

His latest book, How To Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again) has been described as reading “like a bad losers’ handbook”.

The trouble, I fear, is that all appeals to him to kindly shut up, will fall on deaf ears.

n Is it right that people should be compelled to sell their homes to provide themselves with the civilised care they require in old age?

Equally, is it right that our armed forces should face a £50 million bill as a result of the massive and heroic help they gave to those suffering from the ravages of Hurricane Irma?

The answer to both these situations should be a resounding ‘No’.

In the first case, a modest increase in National Insurance contributions could probably deal with it, and thus allow old people to pass on their property assets to their children. But in both cases the remedy could almost certainly be resolved by taking a fresh look at Britain’s generous overseas aid.

At the moment it is sacrosanct because, having been “ring-fenced” by David Cameron, it cannot be touched. Well that could change if the necessary amending legislation were passed.

The “charity begins at home” syndrome is widely scoffed at, but why should our people suffer when their money is being spent abroad in such vast quantities?

And in other cases, I fear, hand-outs are not being monitored sufficiently rigorously to ensure they reach the right people, some of it, we are told, even reaching the grasping hands of warlords, to buy arms.

Alas, usually requests of this kind are received coldly by officials in Whitehall. But,I repeat: Why should, our own people suffer when the overseas aid programme is apparently in such dire need of reform?

n What has the EU done to protect those of its own people - I speak of the Catalonians - who have faced violent posses of Spanish police armed with rubber bullets preventing them from entering polling stations in their independence-from-Spain referendum?

I admit that the referendum is illegal, but that is no excuse for the brutal treatment of these people on the orders of the Government in Madrid.

Is the reason for this irresponsibility by the EU partly that Spain is probably the most compliant and least troublesome of its member states? Or is it because if Catalonia did break away, it would encourage the Basques, and other communities elsewhere in the EU, to follow suit?

EU grandees have already expressed support for the Spanish Government in this crisis, as have other national leaders in Europe.

What an utter disgrace.

Chris Moncrieff

By Chris Moncrieff

Journalist and former political editor of the Press Association

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