In the Brexit saga, who would you say has emerged as Britain’s strongest leader?
Theresa May, the Prime Minister? Brexit Secretary David Davis? Or would you say it’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson?
I’d go with a fourth option: Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Hammond may not be the minister that’s most at the forefront, but he’s quietly steered his colleagues towards his position.
Theresa May and David Davis have all but abandoned their hard Brexit stance.
While they were previously prepared to walk away from the Brexit talks without a deal, they’ve since come round to Hammond’s softer stance.
Johnson, too, has had to backtrack on several claims. Most recently he’s had to tone down comments made in a Telegraph article that challenged May’s vision for Brexit.
By knowing exactly when to speak and when to listen, Hammond is quietly driving the British government’s Brexit strategy.
A stealth intervention
In January, Philip Hammond floated a controversial idea in the German press.
Britain could slash corporation tax further and stay an attractive destination for business even if the country were to end up with a “bad” Brexit deal.
The Chancellor knew full well this suggestion would reach the British public and it ruffled some feathers.
Would Britain really leave the EU to become a tax haven? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was quick to denounce the plans saying it would turn Britain into a “bargain basement” economy.
Hammond hasn’t mentioned the plan since.
Contrast that to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
The ambitious former London mayor doubled down on his controversial EU referendum pledge that £350m per week could be saved and spent on the NHS instead in a Telegraph column.
To make matters worse, Johnson chose the worst of times to revive that claim, with the Brexit talks at a crucial stage and the PM working hard to break the deadlock.
Knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet is a valuable political skill. This week Johnson showed once again he doesn’t possess it.
But his colleague Philip Hammond does.
When the majority of his government still favoured a hard Brexit stance, with Theresa May and David Davis seemingly happy to leave the talks without a deal, Hammond intervened.
However, rather than publishing a lengthy essay in a national newspaper, he stressed the importance of a transition deal to a business audience.
It was smart. The majority of British business favours a softer approach to Brexit, so in that sense he was merely preaching to the choir.
At the same time, he found a way to share his view, which contradicted his PM’s stance, without seeming disloyal.
All he had to do was bring his view in the public domain and let a public debate ensue.
When the general election showed that May’s hard Brexit stance didn’t have a majority in the country, she changed her tune. Hammond’s stealth Brexit intervention was complete.
Theresa May, David Davis and Boris Johnson have all been forced to backtrack on strong claims they made earlier.
Though seemingly less prominent, it’s Hammond who’s quietly exerting the most influence.
Ace up his sleeve
With Theresa May’s authority weakened and rumours of replacements being groomed for a power grab, I’m not surprised to see Hammond as a candidate to take over.
Apparently the more moderate wing of the Conservative Party is proposing Philip Hammond and David Davis stand on a joint ticket if Theresa May is forced out.
It would certainly make a better alternative than the unpolished Boris Johnson stepping into Number 10, but I suspect Hammond will be quite happy to stay in Number 11.
From there, he’s proved to have his influence without being in the limelight.
And don’t for a second think he’s really abandoned his plans to cut corporation tax.
It’s the ace up his sleeve that he’ll be ready to play once Britain’s left the EU to show the country is open for business.
This card will likely be even more effective since the EU is looking to crack down on the “sweetheart tax deals” tech giants like Apple and Amazon have made with EU member states.
In a few years’ time, the European Commission might force Apple to pay taxes in Ireland, but it won’t hold that kind of sway over Westminster anymore.
Britain undercutting European countries on corporate tax will come at a cost, though. The Chancellor will have to find the money for these tax cuts from somewhere and public services are the most likely to be hit.
I doubt this will be happily received by the majority of people who voted for Brexit, but nevertheless it’s a powerful card Hammond can play if he deems it necessary.