John Crace’s sketch Into the light for a slow mo­tion take­down of PM

The Guardian - - NATIONAL POLITICS -

Philip Ham­mond blinked un­easily. He doesn’t cope well with day­light at the best of times and cer­tainly not af­ter a pro­longed pe­riod of dark­ness. But with the em­pa­thy up­date of the May­bot still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing teething prob­lems some­one from the Con­ser­va­tive front­bench had to be sent out to the Sun­day morn­ing pol­i­tics shows and the chan­cel­lor had been first in line to vol­un­teer. It soon be­came clear why. Both An­drew Marr and Robert Pe­ston ap­peared al­most as sur­prised to see the chan­cel­lor as he was to see them. Th­ese were the in­ter­views that none of them had ex­pected just 10 days ago. The exit poll must have been a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment, Marr ob­served.

“Not at all,” said Ham­mond hes­i­tantly. “It was a very bit­ter one.” But his eyes sug­gested oth­er­wise. For the first time in months there were faint flick­ers of life.

“But you would have been sacked if Theresa May had in­creased her ma­jor­ity as she ex­pected,” Marr con­tin­ued. “That’s just spec­u­la­tion.” But well-informed, well-doc­u­mented spec­u­la­tion.

Pe­ston was even more blunt. “You were kept locked up in a cup­board through­out the elec­tion cam­paign,” he said. “Not quite a cup­board,” the chan­cel­lor cor­rected. He had been work­ing late in Room P45, a base­ment of­fice in the Trea­sury, and the door had ac­ci­den­tally swung shut. He’d shouted and shouted to be let out but the May­bot had been un­able to find the set of keys that she had chucked away.

Then he set about tak­ing his re­venge. Not with the reck­less aban­don that Ge­orge Os­borne had shown the pre­vi­ous week, but with a more plod­ding – yet equally dev­as­tat­ing – take­down.

Yes, the gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign had been ut­terly dis­mal but what else could you ex­pect when the Tory party had had a bunch of halfwits in charge of it? If it had been left to him, he would have spent much more time telling the coun­try how well the econ­omy was do­ing. “But it isn’t,” said Pe­ston. Ham­mond ig­nored that re­mark as be­ing un­wor­thy. If true.

He was no more help­ful to his leader when faced with tough ques­tions about the Gren­fell Tower fire, con­ced­ing that the re­sponse by the prime min­is­ter and lo­cal gov­ern­ment had not been ad­e­quate and sug­gest­ing that the cladding had been banned in the UK. He also ap­peared to­tally un­both­ered if Gavin Bar­well – the May­bot’s newlyap­pointed chief of staff, who was im­pli­cated in de­lays to im­ple­ment­ing fire safety reg­u­la­tions – stayed or went. Easy come, easy go. His solution, though, was more on mes­sage. Don’t blame any­one un­til the find­ings of the pub­lic in­quiry have been pub­lished.

When Marr and Pe­ston turned to the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, which were start­ing the fol­low­ing day, Ham­mond cranked up a gear. Ev­ery­thing would be go­ing ahead ex­actly as the May­bot had laid out in her Lan­caster House speech. Apart from those bits that he was now de­cid­ing to rip up.

The May­bot could jump off a cliff – it sounded more likely she would be pushed first – if she wanted, but he wouldn’t be join­ing her. She had screwed up the elec­tion and the Soft Brex­iters were back in the frame. Tough. What was re­quired was a long, seam­less tran­si­tion be­cause that’s what busi­ness and any­one sen­si­ble wanted. A tran­si­tion that was so long and so seam­less it would be al­most as if noth­ing had changed and Bri­tain re­mained to all in­tents and pur­poses a mem­ber of the sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union.

As for reach­ing the May­bot’s im­mi­gra­tion tar­get of tens of thou­sands? This year, next year, some­time, never. Ham­mond leaned in to­wards the cam­era to make his point more force­fully. Think of it this way. Good­bye Euro­pean Union. Hello Union of Europe.

Back in Down­ing Street the May­bot could feel her grip on power slip­ping still fur­ther. But Ham­mond wasn’t yet fin­ished. “Can she sur­vive?” Pe­ston asked. Ham­mond shrugged. He wasn’t much both­ered whether she had a quick or pro­longed exit. Just which­ever was more painful for her. “She’s fo­cus­ing …” he said. He didn’t say what on.

“Is your re­la­tion­ship with the prime min­is­ter back on track?” Ham­mond looked puz­zled. How much plainer did peo­ple ex­pect him to be?

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