Politics 1 October 2018 | 8:43

Spreadsheet Phil is right about Boris

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona on the Chancellor's takedown of Boris Johnson

01 October 2018 08:43

‘An accountant looking for a rabbit-hole to hide in. And not even a good accountant’. Ouch. Thus did one of Philip Hammond’s Cabinet colleagues describe him to me recently.

Yet ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ has his moments of mordant humour: witness the Chancellor’s epic takedown of Boris Johnson in today’s Daily Mail. You know that when a senior politician describes a former colleague as ‘a wonderful character’ – as Hammond does Johnson – a ‘but’ is fizzing through the air towards the unfinished sentence. And this one is a bloody big ‘but’.

Mimicking the former Foreign Secretary, Hammond describes how he pressed for a Canada-style Brexit deal:

‘Boris sits there and at the end of it he says “yeah but, er, there must be a way, I mean, if you just, if you, erm, come on, we can do it Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there…” And that’s it!’

Politicians all imitate each other in private (Tony Blair’s impressions aren’t bad), but public ridicule is something else entirely. What Hammond is signalling on the second day of the Conservative conference in Birmingham is not just that, as he says, he doesn’t ‘expect’ Johnson to become Prime Minister – but why.

Attacking an argument or an ideology is one thing. But saying that somebody is fundamentally ridiculous is much worse. According to Hammond, Johnson insists that Brexit will ‘all be fine’ if we ‘wish a bit harder’ – in the style of Peter Pan. ‘But it won’t all be fine,’ says the Chancellor, ‘because we are dealing with grown ups here and we have to deal with the real world situation we face.’

He’s right, too: the biggest split in modern politics is between the infantile populists (Brexiteer and Corbynite) and the embattled adults. He’s also right that, charming as a jester can be, you don’t want him ruling the court. This is no time for the Conservative Party to let loose its inner child.