Is Philip Hammond trying to be sacked as Chancellor? First, he messed up his Budget after admitting he didn’t properly think about the politics of hiking National Insurance. Next, he’s refusing to prepare properly for a ‘no deal’ scenario – putting the Prime Minister at a disadvantage when she’s negotiating (the subject of my Telegraph column today). And this afternoon, another blunder: he has unforgivably referred to the European Union as 'the enemy' in what seems to be a bungled attempt to assuage Brexiteers. Here are his remarks to Sky News:
'My message is this: I understand that passions are high and I understand that people have very strong views about this. But we’re all going to the same place, we all have the same agenda... The enemy, the opponents, are out there. They’re on the other side of the negotiating table. Those are the people we have to negotiate with, negotiate hard to get the very best deal for Britain.'
That’s his message? That the EU is 'the enemy'? More than a year on, and Hammond still doesn’t understand Brexit. It’s as if he actually believes the caricature that the Remain campaign created: that it really was about being nasty to foreigners, about putting a question mark under the status of EU nationals. And about doing battle with an "enemy", rather than changing the terms of a friendship with an ally.
Words matter because a lot of people will understandably seek to cast Brexit as being anti-European. That’s why the British government ministers needs to be so very careful in their language: to stress, at every opportunity, that we stand ready to be good Europeans, but just not in the EU system. If Nigel Farage had referred to the EU as 'the enemy' it would have been dismissed as a deplorable, xenophobic comment. In Hammond’s case, it will be seen as simply idiotic. But No11 ought not to be occupied by an idiot.
The Prime Minister went to great pains in Florence to say that Britain wants to be the EU’s single greatest ally. The tone of her speech was crucial, yet once again, Hammond has undermined his boss by his basic thoughtlessness. He later tweeted that it was a "poor choice of words". But the whole episode has underlined the many ways in which he has turned out to be a poor choice for Chancellor.