PHILIP HAMMOND, who many will remember as Theresa May’s sallow Eeyore of a Chancellor, was briefly relieved of the Conservative Party whip during the collective mental breakdown over Brexit. These days, he’s Lord Hammond, and a Tory Lord; but his persona hasn’t changed.
Hammond believes that what is good for the City of London is good for Britain. He represents the Conservative Party as sociological determinism says it should be, a Europhile and the voice of unfettered financial capitalism. Something of a crude Dickensian archetype, it’s fair to say none of his beliefs have ever made him any happier.
Yesterday, Hammond seemed to reopen his feud with Boris Johnson, specifically over spending on the pandemic. He urged Johnson to tell the public some “difficult home truths”, which, to those unfamiliar with the Conservative code book, means deep, scarring austerity. But Hammond has his doubts. Not about his remedies, but about what the Tory Party has become. Would Johnson put popularity before the party’s core purpose? “My fear is that, as a populist government, giving money away is always easier than collecting it in,” he groaned.
As Hammond will be aware, the political stakes have changed. After the earlier crisis, Cameron and Clegg managed to capture an ideological consensus for cuts. When they were elected, 52 percent favoured spending reductions to tackle the deficit, with 30 percent preferring tax rises. Today, those figures have reversed. Just 27 percent want cuts, while nearly half (47%) prefer tax rises.
In 2010, Cameron and Clegg won the battle. But ultimately, they lost the war. Austerity was an economic, social and political disaster for the British state. Hammond, a fervent (albeit morose) supporter of the EU, should be aware of the problems. It’s difficult to imagine Brexit happening without the crisis of confidence in mainstream politics that issued from the Cameron-Clegg era.
Equally, the 2014 Scottish referendum saw an extraordinary rise in support for independence. When the campaign began, there were polls showing Yes down near 25 percent. The collapse of unionism was partly about tactical errors. But those mistakes were themselves reflections of miscalculations on austerity: Labour’s decision to join platforms with the Lib Dems and Tories looked, to all the world, like a coalition of cutters. Which, in essence, it was. Subsequently, the rise and rise of Scottish nationalism has been the story of the chaos in Britain ensuing from Cameron and Clegg’s agenda.
Hammond’s persona is as the vinegary, morose voice of order, a Gradgrind of a man, dealing only in uncomfortable Facts. But Johnson’s instincts might be better. Returning to the 2010 agenda risks another meltdown in political order that Britain simply cannot afford.
Taking only Scotland, support for independence has now stabilised in the low fifties. Given the ongoing Salmond-Sturgeon affair, it has its own risks. But the “pragmatic” case for Union continues to rest on perceived economic stability and largesse. A re-run of the Cameron-Clegg programme would be a gift to the Scottish nationalist and wider pro-independence cause, just as it enters an existential crisis.
Still, given the vast outlay on the pandemic, every bone in the Conservative body will be crying cut now, and cut fast. After all, ideology, which learns no lessons from history, would call this “responsibility”.