Philip Hammond lacks the charisma, dynamism and experience required to run our country at this its hour of maximum need, warns Sean Walsh.
In 1980 a youthful and ambitious politician from Arkansas gave a speech to the Democrat National Convention. It consisted of 35,000 words, not many of them interesting. On reaching his peroration Governor Clinton said: “And finally…..”. Rapturous applause ensued, a deserved corrective to the self-promotion his audience had been forced to endure.
In that sense, Philip Hammond’s speech to those unfortunate enough to be in the hall on Monday must have seemed positively Clintonesque. I am not suggesting that Mr Hammond runs his suburban constituency in the manner of 1980s Arkansas. I doubt that his ways are the ways of casual corruption that are so characteristic of the former president. And of the respective wives, I imagine that Mrs Hammond has the greater chance of becoming the next US Commander in Chief. I am absolutely certain that Mr Hammond is a man any intern can share a lift within complete peace of mind. He does not travel through life accompanied by convenient “suicides”.
But boy was he dull. 1980 Clinton dull.
I pity the poor sketch writer. How might one identify a point of engagement with our current occupant of 11 Downing Street? What recognisably human trait does he possess that a Quentin Letts or Craig Brown might seize upon, caricature and turn into 800 words of readable copy?
Watching the speech was like looking at a sort of reverse-Transfiguration. The vector was from multicolour in the direction of monochrome. As each lapidary phrase fell stillborn from those blanched lips another part of the auditorium seemed to become shaded in grey. Or maybe it was more like one of those episodes of Cold Case in which the producers resort to black-and-white in order to emphasise that what is being portrayed happened long ago.
Except it wasn’t long ago. It was a few days ago, the distance between the speech and the lives of the rest of us being not so much temporal as emotional.
Mr Hammond had earlier let the cat out of the bag on what we are (apparently) obliged to call the “flagship” Today program. He had clearly been dispatched to address what we might delicately label the Boris issue. Mr Johnson, Hammond suggested, was a “big picture guy”. He is, the chancellor averred, a man who is apt to operate in a way that shows little reverence for the detail of an issue. Or anything else for that matter.
This was clearly intended as a criticism. In fact, it is no such thing.
There is a difference between paying attention to detail and reducing everything to detail. The former demonstrates a laudably cautious sensibility, the latter is actually a type of recklessness. Detail should always be in service of a bigger picture. I suspect that if ever Mr Hammond were to stand in front of Caravaggio’s masterpiece depicting Saul’s encounter on the way to Damascus he might offer the following insight: “This is all very well, but we need to remind ourselves that what is really in front of us is pixels of inanimate matter which are conducive to a Cartesian analysis. It’s all in the detail.” Bach’s transformative aria Erbarme dich mein gott ? “You might want to insist that this is an emotionally profound and layered representation of St Peter’s remorse but really it’s just notes, one after the other”.
We have really entrusted the 2016 “charge to keep” to a man like this? A man we can plausibly imagine soliciting briefing papers before cooking the family tea?
But fear not. For Mr Hammond reminded us in the same interview that he is not acting alone. He has, he assured us, many civil servants working very hard to “deliver Brexit”. In much the same way, I guess, that Laurel and Hardy were working very hard to deliver that piano.
I’m beginning to wonder if the real division in this country is not between those who wish to leave the EU and those who see in its inflexible structures our national salvation. I suspect that the schism isn’t between those wanting to implement the 2016 instruction and those determined to thwart it. I’m starting to think that our political masters fall into two classes: those who see politics as management, for whom detail is all, and those who see that genuinely moral ideas are in play. For too many of our elected representatives the primary loyalty is not to us but to the club. The European Union, its own eye for detail invariably on sabbatical when the auditors are due, is the sublime reification of that club. Why would you want to sever membership from that ecosphere of mutual admiration simply because 17.4 million hoi polloi instructed you to?
It is to Boris Johnson’s credit that he is suspicious of detail. Detail is the perennial pray-in-aid of the tyrant. As the Waterboys might put it, Hammond sees the crescent, but Boris sees the whole of the moon.
I hear rumours (some of which I have started) that Philip Hammond sees himself as a PM in waiting. But a man who has never been sacked from any job is not suited to being a PM at a time when that job requires the sublime creativity of the maverick. And this is that time.