Hammond will be the bell weather for hard or soft Brexit

By Chris Rogers October 17, 2016 3:01 pm

Marmitegate was just the start. We’re now entering a more fractious part of the phony war before the UK triggers Article 50 and begins formal Brexit negotiations.

Tempers have certainly appeared a little frayed in recent days – whether we’re talking about Donald Tusk insisting there can only be ‘hard’ Brexit, or Boris Johnson seemingly arguing the cases for and against leaving the EU with himself. Add to that Jeremy Hunt’s appearance on the Today Programme, in which he had to defend reports of Cabinet rifts over Brexit, and you get the very strong impression the negotiations will be anything but convivial and collegiate.

The disagreements within the Cabinet have been well reported – to the point the rumours of ructions between ministers cannot easily be dismissed. And the central issue appears to be how Brexit should be communicated. Some ministers – notably Liam Fox and David Davis – are eager the Government is stressing the opportunities they believe Brexit will bring. Others, and particularly Chancellor Philip Hammond, appear more sanguine – willing to be cautious and acting upon the concerns expressed by some business leaders, particularly those in financial services.

While some of his Cabinet colleagues might feel a degree of exasperation with the Chancellor, we shouldn’t be surprised at a measure of caution from the man known within the Westminster bubble as ‘Spreadsheet Phil.’ Indeed, perhaps the hallmark of Mr Hammond’s career is that he is considered a safe pair of hands. He was, after all, the man sent to the MoD in the wake of Dr Fox’s resignation as Defence Secretary, then moved to the Foreign Office after a successful period of getting the MoD largely out of the headlines. With that reputation comes an inevitable caution. But that doesn’t mean one is being obdurate or morose for not showing the same outward enthusiasm as one’s colleagues.

In the past couple of months, Mr Hammond has been working to reassure business leaders and particularly the financial services sector that Brexit will not leave them out of pocket. There is a pressing need to address those concerns in addition to focusing entirely on what opportunities there might be for Britain in the post-Brexit world. And given the British Chamber of Commerce has called for a multi-billion pound stimulus package, there is still much work for Mr Hammond to do.

Mr Hammond’s office has dismissed suggestions that differences of opinion with his Cabinet colleagues could cause him to leave government. Nor is there any suggestion that Theresa May is willing to dispense with her Chancellor. And this leaves Mr Hammond in a very interesting position – one in which his prominence, or lack thereof, in public discussions about Brexit could be quite revealing as to the UK’s eventual negotiating stance.

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