Pragmatist Philip Hammond knows that only a Final Say can solve Brexit. He should be running for PM

The chancellor’s remarks about the future of his party and of the country are important and admirably clear-sighted

Thursday 30 May 2019 19:39
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Philip Hammond admits second referendum on Brexit more likely than general election

In a saner world than the one the Conservative Party currently calls home, the idea of Philip Hammond as prime minister would be a perfectly plausible one. Though lacking a little charisma, the chancellor of the exchequer has a relatively distinguished ministerial record in high office (unlike some of his rivals), has never voted against his party in the Commons (unlike some of his rivals) and has sensible views on Europe (unlike some of his rivals). Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and John Major were all former chancellors who went on to lead their party, albeit with varying degrees of success.

What makes Mr Hammond, for the time being, an implausible candidate for the leadership are his views on Brexit. These are far too logical and realistic to appeal to many of the Conservative activists who will decide this election, a substantial number of whom would prefer Nigel Farage to any of the current runners.

Now Mr Hammond has made a carefully timed intervention in the debate about the future of his party and of the country, and one that is admirably clear-sighted.

He has acknowledged that the EU will not renegotiate the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, no matter how much some of his colleagues might pretend otherwise. No amount of tough talking or empty threats about a no-deal Brexit will change that. The arrival – now a serious possibility – of Michel Barnier as the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker would make it more unlikely that the EU would want to tear up an agreement that Mr Barnier himself helped to frame.

Someone needs to tell the Conservative Party some of these home truths. It may as well be the chancellor.

While displaying no particular enthusiasm for a second Brexit referendum, Mr Hammond also points out that it may well turn out to be the only way through the Brexit stalemate. His own formulation cannot be bettered: “If we do get to the point when we have to admit that parliament can’t resolve this issue, then clearly it will have to be remitted back to the people. I am not sure the general election can resolve the question for the simple reason that both the main political parties are divided on the issues.

“My strong preference would be for parliament to resolve this issue, but if parliament can’t resolve it then parliament will have to decide how we remit it back to the people, whether it is in the form of a general election or a referendum.”

Given that both Labour and, especially, the Conservatives fear an early general election (the local and European elections were a public warning of their probable fate) that leaves the option of putting Brexit back to the people for a Final Say referendum. Mr Hammond is one of the few at the top of his party to admit as much; only Rory Stewart has made any such suggestion, but he has recently said he would “ban” talk about a second referendum.

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Such candour about a Final Say, as well as his previous tocsins about the damage Brexit would inflict on the economy, have most likely sunk whatever slim chance Mr Hammond might have had in running for the top job. But he has not ruled himself out, and he has hinted that he might make his move if his rivals fail to convince him that their Brexit policy is sensible, which seems unlikely. A Hammond candidature would be about telling the party some uncomfortable facts about Brexit, whether it likes them or not. Mr Hammond would, in other words, offer the party strong leadership, rather than simply telling it what it wishes to hear – a sure guarantee of disaster all round.

Almost three years ago, after the 2016 referendum, Mr Hammond told his party conference that “no one voted to be poorer”. He needs to repeat that message today, and use the leadership contest to lend it maximum impact. He should go for it.

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