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