Hammond Urges Brexit Hardliners to Stop Plotting

A leadership election is inevitable, but it is unlikely to affect Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Philip Hammond, then Britain's foreign secretary, meets with Finnish officials in Helsinki, January 8, 2015
Philip Hammond, then Britain’s foreign secretary, meets with Finnish officials in Helsinki, January 8, 2015 (Finnish Government/Laura Kotila)

Philip Hammond, the number two in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, has urged ministers who disagree with his views on Brexit to stop leaking against him.

“It would be helpful if my colleagues — all of us — focused on the job in hand,” he told the BBC on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, The Sunday Times had cited as many as five ministers in a story that showed Hammond in a bad light.

The chancellor, who is responsible for economic and fiscal policy, reportedly called public-sector workers “overpaid” during a cabinet meeting. He clarified to the BBC he was referring to civil servants’ generous taxpayer-funded pensions.

Planning for May’s succession

The backstabbing is a result of last month’s disappointing election result.

Theresa May, the prime minister, called an election hoping to expand the Conservatives’ majority. Instead, she lost it. The party must now rely on the hardline Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to stay in power.

There is little desire for an immediate leadership contest. Backbenchers have let it be known they still support May. But she is living on borrowed time. It is unlikely Conservatives will allow her to contest another election.

Two camps

Hammond is seen as a potential successor and the choice of moderates who opposed Brexit.

The five most prominent hardliners are Brexit Secretary David Davis, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. All are believed to harbor leadership ambitions.

In a leadership election, lawmakers would pick two candidates who must then bid for the support of around 130,000 Conservative Party members.

Hard Brexit is going to happen anyway

For the sake of Brexit, it matters little who prevails. British — especially Conservative — politicians still think they’re in the driver’s seat. The reality is that continental Europe has moved on.

Even Hammond would preside over a “hard” Brexit. He has ruled out continued membership of the European single market and shares his party’s commitment to reducing immigration to the tens of thousands per year.

This is inconsistent with membership of the European Economic Area, which would give Britain most of the commercial benefits of being in the EU. A key requirement is allowing the free movement of EU nationals.

Continental leaders have not budged on this point. The EU’s “four freedoms” — of capital, goods, services and people — cannot be separated.

It took the Brexit fundamentalists a while to accept this, but even they now concede as much.

Which means there is no longer a prospect of “soft” Brexit. The question is rather: will there be a negotiated exit at all?

That’s where the pragmatic Hammond and the ultras part ways. The former understands Britain would suffer tremendously if it doesn’t answer the questions I posted here yesterday ahead of the March 2019 deadline. The latter seem to believe things will somehow fall into place without Britain making any concessions.