You probably wouldn’t have guessed this from a speech that could be used as a makeshift riot control device during a tear gas shortage, but the young Philip Hammond was quite the dashing blade.
TV’s Richard Madeley, a schoolmate in Brentwood, Essex, recalls the future Chancellor as a popular long-haired boy, “like Johnny Depp back in his pomp”.
The memory plays tricks, of course, but if Hammond was a ringer for Captain Jack Sparrow, those days are behind him. He came to the dispatch box less in the guise of swashbuckling pirate than kindly oncologist putting the most optimistic gloss on bad news.
In this light, and taking Madeley’s recollection into account, it would be wrong to dismiss Hammond as a lethally crashing bore. But if you found him in the next seat on a flight to Melbourne, you’d be asking cabin crew about noose availability during the safety demonstration.
After a hesitant start, he hit his robotic doors-to-manual stride when he paid tribute to his predecessor. The camera found George Osborne wearing a daffy Forrest Gump grin.
Hammond is nothing like a box of chocolates. With him, you always know what you’re gonna get.
As it happens, what he had to say was gloomsome in the extreme. Alcohol was not allowed at this final Autumn Statement, as at the Budget. But for anyone forced to unveil the full economy-shrinking, debt-growing horror of Brexit, the traditional glass of Scotch wouldn’t have cut it anyway. A tumbler of antifreeze, perhaps.
But Hammond has just the one mode, and he spoke in the same grinding monotone he’d use if he was commentating on a thrilling Grand National photo finish, or doing his impression of Kris Akabusi.
Bless him, he did try the odd gag. Preempting the shadow chancellor’s response, Hammond teased John McDonnell for outdoing even Ed Balls in the fiscal incontinence stakes. “What we don’t know,” he added, “is if he can dance.”
The raucous hilarity that met this zinger will be familiar to snooker fans. During a coma-inducingly attritional Crucible match, such is the craving for relief that the audience will virtually cede bodily function control from mirth if Mark Selby drops his chalk and says, “Oops!”
On and on the Chancellor ploughed, sounding slightly more relaxed in Spreadsheet Phil mode than when auditioning to join Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Round Table.
The rear view of Theresa May, ritualistically nodding approval while plainly fantasising about her next Alpine walking holiday, underlined what an uncannily well-matched office husband and wife these two are.
There may be the usual tensions between Numbers 10 and 11. But all marriages have their moments, and you can easily imagine them finishing one another’s sentences while the other wine and cheese partiers glance at their watches and mutter about 8.20pm being awfully late.
If he was happiest outlining his measures to help business, this is where his heart lies as a wealthy former man of commerce. By the way, isn’t it nice having a successful businessman at the Treasury for once? Almost as nice as having one heading for the Oval Office.
In his Johnny Depp years, Hammond’s precocious entrepreneurial talent was already apparent. He made cash running teenagers’ discos in local churches, and much more a few years later buying and selling cars. Any experience of spray-painting a piece of junk to disguise its decrepitude must have been ideal preparation for this restrainedly upbeat glimpse at the future.
The question is whether you would buy a second-hand economy (far too few careful previous owners) from this man. The markets will give their answer soon enough.Reuse content