Re­turn of un­der­taker: Britain’s fi­nance min­is­ter ‘fights back’

Arab Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

LON­DON, June 19, (RTRS): Side­lined for months by his boss Theresa May, Britain’s fi­nance min­is­ter Philip Ham­mond has re­turned to the po­lit­i­cal front­line, crit­i­cis­ing the prime min­is­ter over her re­cent elec­tion cam­paign and call­ing for prag­ma­tism in Brexit talks that be­gin on Mon­day.

In the past few days, the softly spo­ken Ham­mond, whose fu­ture as Chan­cel­lor seemed to hang in the bal­ance be­fore May lost her Con­ser­va­tive party’s ma­jor­ity in this month’s vote, has made clear the si­lence he kept dur­ing the cam­paign had ended.

Many in busi­ness, con­cerned that for­mer in­te­rior min­is­ter May will pri­ori­tise con­trol­ling im­mi­gra­tion over pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to the Euro­pean Union’s lu­cra­tive sin­gle mar­ket, hope an em­bold­ened Ham­mond will mean their voices are lis­tened to.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a lead­ing busi­ness group said ac­cess to govern­ment was im­prov­ing. “It’s early days still, but we’ve had more ac­cess in the last week to govern­ment quite broadly than we did in the pre­vi­ous four or five months.”

Ham­mond was kept out of the Con­ser­va­tives’ elec­tion cam­paign af­ter a back­lash over his plan to raise taxes on en­trepreneurs. The im­mi­nent sack­ing of a man nick­named “the un­der­taker” for his dry man­ner was openly dis­cussed in the rul­ing party.

But he was reap­pointed af­ter the vote and ap­peared on sev­eral po­lit­i­cal talk shows on Sun­day. When one in­ter­viewer asked if he had been locked in a cup­board dur­ing the cam­paign by May’s aides, he said with a smirk: “Not quite in a cup­board.”

His anger was ev­i­dent in his crit­i­cism of his party for hav­ing not fo­cused more on the econ­omy, which has per­formed more strongly than pre­dicted in the year since Bri­tons voted by a nar­row ma­jor­ity to leave the Euro­pean Union.

“I would have liked to have high­lighted our eco­nomic record, and I think if we had fo­cused on that we prob­a­bly would have done bet­ter in the elec­tion than we did,” Ham­mond told the BBC, echo­ing ear­lier com­ments to Reuters.

Such crit­i­cism would have been un­think­able be­fore the June 8 elec­tion, in which the Labour Party un­der Jeremy Cor­byn cap­i­talised on its op­po­si­tion to aus­ter­ity cuts, leav­ing May scram­bling to shore up a mi­nor­ity govern­ment.

Ham­mond has no di­rect part in Brexit talks which be­gin in Brus­sels on Mon­day but his new con­fi­dence means he is likely to press May and other min­is­ters to pri­ori­tise the econ­omy in the com­pli­cated ne­go­ti­a­tions for Britain’s EU de­par­ture.

“I’m sure busi­ness will get a bet­ter hear­ing,” a Con­ser­va­tive Party source said on con­di­tion of anonymity, while play­ing down any idea that Ham­mond might rad­i­cally change the party’s Brexit stance.

That source, and another in the Con­ser­va­tive party, said May’s mis­judged elec­tion gam­ble had un­der­mined her author­ity, leav­ing her in the thrall of the two wings of her party that have differing views for Brexit “purists” who want a clean break and “re­main­ers” press­ing for close ties.

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