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