Friday, September 21, 2018

It may be too early to write Philip Hammond’s political obituary, and with the Budget little more than a month away, his career probably won’t expire in two weeks. 

But with the gallows under construction, one turns to Samuel Johnson’s over-quoted line: that when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Hammond’s mind could do with sharper focus. If the Chancellor thought calling the EU “the enemy” would assuage the no-dealers demanding his head, he must have drifted off into a fantasy realm, where inflammatory talk doesn’t start fires.

Our own realm currently has a powerfully fantastical flavour, of course. When you wake to read that Hammond plans to write off student debt in the Budget, and then hear his borderline Marxist shadow John McDonnell assuring Andrew Marr that he has spent 18 months talking to asset fund managers, you know how Alice must have felt.

Yet even in this curiouser and curiouser wonderland, some old rules still apply. One is that if you pick a fight with people who are gagging for a fight, they will fight back. So it is, according to The Telegraph, that two Remain-voting cabinet ministers were sufficiently outraged by Hammond’s “enemy” remark to join the cabal of hard Brexit thugs on the Kill Phil bandwagon. “This is an inept political operator,” one observes in a statement too bleeding obvious even for Sybil Fawlty. 

But however clumsy Hammond may be, he is also one of the stronger surviving barriers between the Government and the catastrophe of no deal. The fact that Michael Gove is touted as a replacement begs a question. Apres-Hammond, what deluge awaits?

If he does go, it won’t be for the wildly miscalculated “enemy” overcompensation. A special quality of loathing being reserved for the whistleblower, his capital crime will be telling the truth.

Alistair Darling was in the same position when, as Chancellor in 2008, he did some soothsaying about an approaching economic disaster. Gordon Brown came within a whisker of replacing him with Ed Balls. In the end Gordon chickened out of it, as he had the year before over the snap election.

Theresa May did not chicken out of calling a needless election, as you may recall. On that template, Hammond might expect her to be reckless enough to execute him for being honest about the economic imperative to strike a deal. 

If he does anticipate being fired after the Budget, it might concentrate his mind wonderfully on an unwontedly sensationalist departure.

Every few years, purely as an exercise in escapism, I like to imagine a politician performing an heroic act of self-sacrifice. In 2009, the conceit was that, by accepting the hopelessness of his position and quitting, Gordon could become the beloved national saviour who threw himself under the bus to stop the Tories taking the wheel. 

Then 2013 saw Nick Clegg accepting that he was so poisoned by tuition fees that only by making way for Vince Cable (a fellow colluder, but not lethally associated with the policy) could he prevent the Liberal Democrat bloodbath.

The 2017 version concerns Philip Hammond. If he sees no deal as the gravest threat to British prospects; if he is convinced that we are entering a cataclysmic dive towards WTA tariffs, grounded aircraft and anarchy at the ports; if he believes that this is an existential issue massively dwarfing the trivial demands of tribal loyalty he should design his Budget to bring down the Government before the Government brings down the country.

With the Tories looking as secure as a drunk tightrope walker with an inner-ear infection, it wouldn’t take much. All he need do is wind up the already wavering DUP by hiking VAT to 30 per cent in Northern Ireland to fund May’s revolting bribe back in June. 

In place of a grubby student-debt-reduction bribe of his own, he could announce a huge building programme for prisons to house anyone who hasn’t settled their debt within 40 minutes of leaving the graduation ceremony. He could address the mounting crisis in the NHS by halving GPs’ pay and replacing all orthopaedic surgeons with retired butchers.

On last year’s form (the aborted assault on the self-employed) he could probably manage it without trying. But why take the chance? Selling a new aircraft carrier to landlocked Lesotho for six packs of rolling tobacco, scrapping income tax for junk-bond dealers, diverting £5.6bn from the welfare budget to a space mission to land three voles and a platypus called Cecil on Jupiter. There are countless contrived lunacies with which he could nudge a tottering administration off the high wire.

He could even, if his dignity still matters to him, begin his Budget by announcing that he will be leaving the Treasury at its end, in the hope that this spectacular act of destabilisation forces the election that lets the British people decide who they most trust, or distrust least, with their future.

He could go out in style, and live in eternal glory as the modern Samson who brought the temple down on his real enemies as well as himself. 

The alternative is clinging on in humiliating isolation – deserted by May, hated as a traitor by Brexit ultras, despised for a vacillator by Remainers – in the hope of avoiding execution. If he’s looking for an omen, the date of his do-or-die Budget is 22 November, the anniversary of the day JFK was assassinated in Dallas.