Hammond is beating Boris Johnson at his own game – the hedge fund backers will be in play come the election

The question of why City financiers are backing our ‘man of the people’ PM will gather momentum as we head towards an election campaign

James Moore
Thursday 03 October 2019 09:43
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Boris Johnson's aide grabs disposable cup off him: 'no disposable cups'

Was the former chancellor, Philip Hammond, right to accuse Boris Johnson of being backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit, and expect to profit from the disastrous effects of crashing out of the EU without a deal?

Hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, something of a City pantomime villain, was moved to inelegantly dismiss suggestions that he donated to Johnson in order to profit from a no deal outcome as “crap” in the pages of the Financial Times.

Toby Young, the former Spectator columnist who is close to the prime minister, went even further. He baselessly accused Hammond of propagating a “disgusting antisemitic controversy” on Twitter – before deleting the tweet and then apologising.

Hammond had threatened to sue, and he appeared to have grounds for doing so. He made no mention of ethnicity, nor has he ever swum in the antisemitic swamp (unlike others in today’s Tory fold, and Labour fold too).

But are other criticisms of the story put about by Hammond, Rachel Johnson (who raised the issue first) and the former Treasury permanent secretary Nick Macpherson, who tweeted in support of his previous boss, justified?

There have been several detailed analyses of whether Johnson is indeed the hedge funds’ no deal man. Their conclusions have ranged from not guilty, even though he pals around and gets money from them, to the famous not proven verdict available under Scottish law. However, if the veracity of the claim is what concerns you, you’re missing the point.

Raising the question of who is backing "man of the people" Johnson, and pointing to his undoubted links with hedge funds and other casino capitalists, seeks to flip a switch by portraying him, instead, as the financiers’ man.

When voters start to wonder why it’s Leave "do or die". Why the prime minister has been speaking so aggressively and carelessly. Then it would be no surprise if their gaze fell on his mates' bonuses. Those City boys profit from our pain; they delight in blowing things up. They may point to the fact that there is someone on the other side of every trade, winners and losers with every roll of the dice in financial markets. But that's not the point.

There may well be no ideology in currency or equity trading – it is all about profit – but if you take that view, could that not mean that a bet on a hard Brexit with a no-deal PM may be motivated by the expectation of financial gain?

If the PM gets a no deal, and things really do blow up (as they surely will), and the charge is repeated during a subsequent general election campaign, he’s going to be in trouble. That’s when Hammond's narrative will really take flight.

In raising the question, Johnson’s opponents have used his own tactics against him. It's what he tried to do by referring to the Benn Act as “the Surrender Act” when all it does is mandate him to seek a short extension to Britain’s EU membership if he can’t fix up a deal. That's what makes this affair so precious.

Except – and here’s the best part – they’ve done it without the need to rely upon on lies.Take Macpherson, who said in a tweet that Hammond was “right to question the political connections of some of the hedge funds with a financial interest in no deal”. That was it; no more, no less.

It is very hard to honestly argue with that. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all, and Johnson has certainly received cash from the casino end of the City.

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"It’s a legless story that has somehow run away,” Odey groused in his FT interview.

Except that it isn’t. The legs come from the very legitimacy of the question. People understand that those who bankroll politicians expect something in return, and they are starting to feel uncomfortable about who it is that Johnson represents.

The story will keep on running – not least because Hammond is a substantial political figure who has forgotten more than most people know about high finance, Rachel is Boris’s sister, and Macpherson is a serious and high-minded individual.

I’d be surprised if they don’t kick Johnson again.

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