Spitting Image had a simple technique to characterise John Major as one of the least interesting Prime Ministers in British history. While all around him, the screen was full of colour, Major was entirely grey, a pallid monotone listlessly draining the life out of any scene. When sat at the dining table with his wife, the cloying silence would only be punctuated by his dull observations on how fond he was of peas.
Years later, it transpired that Major had a far racier side than the Spitting Image writers could have barely imagined. While serving as a government whip in Mrs Thatcher’s government, he embarked on a four year affair with Conservative MP Edwina Currie. Presumably the topic of peas was never discussed.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond is portrayed as the new grey man. When Nicholas Watt, political editor of Newsnight, profiled Hammond, he began: “For years Philip Hammond has been dubbed the ultimate boring accountant whose idea of fun is to spend his holidays poring over spreadsheets.
“And Hammond does – according to his former ministerial colleague Sir Peter Luff – infuriate his wife Susan by taking spreadsheets to the beach.”
The only evidence to contradict the “boring” accusation Watt could uncover was that he did occasionally swig some sherry with friends when he was at university.
Television presenter, Richard Madeley was a classmate of Hammond and recalled him as a Goth, describing how he “used to arrive in class in a leather trench-coat with the Guardian under his arm.” A young liberal perhaps? Apparently not, some time later Madly conceded that that actually on reflection, it probably was the Financial Times, not the Guardian.
In Westminster his staid reputation has remained intact. He never frequents the gossip dens such as the bars, the tearoom or the smoking room. It has gone down in folklore that when a colleague suggested having a drink with him, he replied in a puzzled tone: “Why?”
So is he just an introverted numbers man, who deserves the uninspiring nick name of Spreadsheet Phil?
Andrew Gimson, writing for conservativehome.com is not so sure. He believes that “Hammond has long sought to guard his privacy by appearing to be less interesting than he really is.”
Perhaps it is all a cunning plan. In 1997, after he was elected MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, his maiden speech may have confirmed this theory: “A number of my honourable friends who are new members have already made their maiden speeches. My tardiness owes something to Disraeli’s advice to a new member: ‘It is better that they wonder why you do not speak than that they wonder why you do.’”
Nicholas Watt is also certainly right about one thing. Our Chancellor may like a spreadsheet, but he is no accountant. He is in fact a serial entrepreneur; a risk taker who has known both success and failure in the business world.
Early on in his career he had a sobering lesson of just how harsh the business environment can be, as reported by the FT’s Kate Allen and Leila Haddou: “Philip Hammond was a 24-year-old from Essex with a taste for fast cars and a mixed record of small-time ventures under his belt when he persuaded Barclays bank to back him in his first big business deal.
“It was 1980, the year after Margaret Thatcher came to power, and the pitch had some of the swagger that would come to define the era: for £1, he would buy the medical devices division of Speywood, the company he worked for, taking on all its liabilities.
“…Six years after taking it over, investing thousands of pounds setting up a new factory but failing to boost the company’s sales of electrocardiograph equipment, he sold out and liquidated the holding company.
“Unsecured creditors — including the company’s suppliers, car hire firms, British Telecom, the Welsh Development Agency and Mr Hammond himself — were paid just 12.75p in the pound on the combined £260,000 they were owed.”
Another early venture was a case of unfortunate timing. With Colin (now Lord) Moynihan, he set up a business selling summer trips to Oxford to Iranians. However the small matter of the 1979 Iranian revolution put paid to this venture. There seemed to be less interest in western tourism under Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.
Any business failures were more than redeemed by Hammond’s eye for detail and a good deal. The biggest success was setting up Castlemead in 1984, a housebuilding firm he launched in partnership with a Billericay surveyor, Terry Gregson. Their first land deal made a £100,000 profit.
The FT narrated this change of fortune: “Castlemead’s business strategy involved squeezing more units on to sites than other developers did, so they could bid higher prices for land. Once planning permission was granted and the land value shot up, Castlemead could then borrow to fund the cost of building homes.
“After a slow start the company took off in the early 2000s when Mr Hammond spotted an opportunity buried in the technical details of some recent healthcare reforms. In a bid to boost competition within the NHS, the previous Tory government had handed over purchasing budgets to local health authorities and doctors, making it easier for them to commission new construction.
Castlemead began to supplement its housing business by building doctors’ surgeries — a move which, along with the acquisition of another firm, would drive its turnover from just £44,000 in 1994 to over £10m a decade later.
The decision to diversify was prescient: when the financial crisis battered the housebuilding sector after 2007, Castlemead — unlike many small and medium builders — hung on to life, thanks to its healthcare revenues.” One close friend of Mr Hammond’s says that having this “second string to its bow” made all the difference.”
The Move to Politics
Lord Moynihan has no doubt that Hammond gave up a lot to pursue his political career. He said: ’If he was not in politics he would have made a lot of money as an entrepreneur.’
Reporting last year, the Metro revealed that “Hammond is the second-richest member of cabinet with a net worth of £8.2 million – just behind Lord Strathclyde on £9.6 million.”
He still holds the predominant financial interest in Castlemead, with his stake controlled by an onshore discretionary trust, an arrangement which is deemed to not represent a conflict of interest, according to the Cabinet Office.
Although not short of money, it is most likely that he would be far wealthier if he had stayed in business. But politics was his calling from a young age. Born on 4th December 1955 in Epping, he studied at a local state school, Shenfield School, a comprehensive in Brentwood. It is a marked shift in the government, that both PM and Chancellor were educated at state schools.
A lifelong Conservative, he has described how he felt aged 14 when Harold Wilson’s Labour government lost the election: “I remember the day after the general election of 1970 when Harold Wilson had lost – I remember quite clearly cycling from my house in Hutton along Long Ridings and feeling what a relief to live in a country with a Tory government again.”
He earned a place at Oxford University and began his studies on the same day in 1974 the day that the Labour government was elected, a period which shaped Mr Hammond’s personal political convictions. Since then he has emphasised his desire to see a government that promotes economic stability: “I watched, first as a student of politics, and then as a new employee in a small pharmaceutical company, as economic disaster engulfed Britain.”
Philip Hammond was the Chairman of the Lewisham East Conservative Association for seven years from 1989 and contested the 1994 Newham North East by-election following the death of sitting Labour MP Ron Leighton, losing to Labour’s Stephen Timms by 11,818 votes.
He was elected to the House of Commons at the 1997 general election for the newly created Surrey seat of Runnymede and Weybridge. He won the seat with a majority of 9,875 and has remained its MP since. He made his maiden speech on 17 June 1997. He referred to his Surrey constituency as one that “straddles the M25 and the M3; indeed, in those road atlases that tend to exaggerate the width of roads my constituency appears to contain little other than the intersection of those two motorways.”
He was promptly promoted to the front bench and held a number of shadow cabinet positions eventually taking on the role of Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. After the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, he was appointed Transport Secretary in David Cameron’s coalition government. It was not without controversy as this was at the height of the expenses scandals which engulfed parliament, and Hammond was one of the MPs who had claimed almost the full second home allowance despite living just a short commute from London.
One policy idea which cheered motoring enthusiasts was the proposed rise of the motorway speed limit to 80 mph. However, his successor in the position canned the idea, largely due to the fear that the blame for any increase fatalities would be levelled at the Secretary.
He became Secretary of State for Defence on October 14th 2011 and was at the helm during a period when cuts to services, including the armed forces, were being administered. He also announced that women were to be allowed to serve on Royal Navy submarines.
On July 15th 2014, he moved over to the Foreign Office as Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. His main challenge was to represent the UK in the sensitive but vital negotiations with Iran regarding their nuclear programme.
Hammond is known to be the more traditional wing of the Conservative Party, and often found himself at odds with the modernising coalition government. One example was on the subject of same-sex marriage. In 2013 on Question Time he said, “This change does redefine marriage.
For millions and millions of people who are married, the meaning of marriage changes. There is a real sense of anger among many people who are married that the government, any government, thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage. There was no huge demand for this and we didn’t need to spend a lot of parliamentary time and upset vast numbers of people to do this. I have just never felt that this is what we should be focusing on . . .”
Although he never obstructed the path of the bill, it was clear that he felt this wasn’t something a Conservative government should be getting involved with.
Europe – Still a Remainer?
“Leaving the EU would be a huge, reckless leap in the dark.
“Risking recession and gambling the jobs and the futures of a generation. Because we do not know – and “Leave” cannot tell us – what life outside the EU would look like.
“Although all the market indicators are pointing to a pretty traumatic short-term shock as well as a long-term structural reduction in our rate of growth and the size of our economy.”
Unlike Mrs May, Philip Hammond was adamant about his position. Britain would be stronger, safer and better off in Europe. So has he changed his view – or is he still a remainer at heart?
Tom Goodenough, writing in The Spectator, commented recently, “In the run-up to the referendum, Philip Hammond was one of those warning of the dire consequences of a vote to leave the EU. He predicted that Brexit would have a ‘chilling effect’ on the UK economy and said there would be uncertainty for years to come. Since being made Chancellor, Hammond has softened his language about the doom and gloom of Brexit. But only just.”
Goodenough concluded, “Hammond is making it clear he’s still sceptical about the glimmers of economic prosperity which have emerged since the referendum. The economists might have upped their predictions, and the Treasury’s forecasts have reverted to matching those made in the run-up to the vote. But Hammond, for one, isn’t buying it.
“By saying he’ll wait for ‘hard data’, Hammond is pouring cold water on the upbeat picture to emerge of Britain’s economy since the vote. Of course, having a degree of healthy scepticism is wise. Yet having found himself on the wrong side of the referendum vote, Hammond must strike a delicate balance to ensure his warnings of uncertainty don’t end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Goodenough’s colleague at the paper, James Forsyth, also feels that Hammond may be out of step with the rest of the party: “Many Brexiteers regard Hammond as worryingly gloomy. They complain that he dwells on the negatives of leaving the EU.”
Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt, reported that “Mr Hammond is, according to friends, unimpressed by what he regards as the excessively optimistic claims of the Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. But he is re-establishing an alliance with the third Brexiteer, his one time boss David Davis.
“Friends say Mr Hammond regards the Brexit secretary as a grown-up who is immersing himself in the gritty detail of his job.”
So is Hammond the realist among the Brexiteer dreamers, our is his own ideology putting the brakes on Brexit progress? It perhaps says more about his business roots.
Watt states that, “The chancellor is so concerned about business uncertainty he believes the UK should negotiate a transitional deal with the EU to cover future trading relations at the same time as the Brexit talks.”
It seems most likely that his reputation as Spreadsheet Phil may be accurate. Forget the politics – do the sums add up?
But Hammond is the Chancellor and not the PM. Balancing books is not everything as he quickly discovered after his Spring Budget. His announcement of a boost to social care provision was overwhelmed by the fallout from his plans to fund it – via a rise in National Insurance contributions. It was surely one of the most short-lived budget announcements in history, a policy quickly reversed after his own back-benchers cried foul at the breaking of a manifesto pledge, which promised no tax rises before 2020.
The chancellor signalled the abrupt change of heart in a letter to Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the treasury select committee, following a revolt by backbench MPs that Hammond had proved unable to quell.
“The government continues to believe that addressing this unfairness is the right approach,” he said.
“However, since the budget, parliamentary colleagues and others have questioned whether the increase in class 4 contributions is compatible with the tax lock commitments made in our 2015 manifesto.”
It can be spun that the Chancellor listens to feedback and is open-minded, but the political sketch writers would prefer to report this as a defeat and a U-turn.
Few of us are in a position to judge whether Mr Hammond is the right man for the job although we will all, at varying times and degrees, have our rabid opinions. It is probably best that our Chancellor is boring; who wants a showboater with an ego the size of Jeremy Clarkson’s. It’s better to have a calm, steady hand with a forensic eye for detail and a total disregard for headlines, image and status. The fact he has made vast amounts of money in business may prevent him from being swayed by personal gain. It’s no bad thing that he has made a considerable financial sacrifice to be the Chancellor. The same applies for the head of the Bank of England.
You sometimes wonder what motivates people to leave a successful career to enter the shark tank that is Westminster.
Hammond will have the job of keeping the economy growing during the most traumatic years of change we have seen for generations. Many would say that a man with the title of Spreadsheet Phil is exactly what we need at the helm whilst there are inevitable stormy waters ahead. HMS Invisible or RMS Titanic?