For a politician often likened to Winnie-the-Pooh’s gloomy friend Eeyore, it seemed apposite that Philip Hammond should announce ‘with great sadness’ his decision to quit frontline politics.
Rarely during his time as Chancellor did the one-time second-hand car salesman from Essex glow with sunny optimism.
That said, he was responsible for presiding over some radiant times for the UK economy — his careful stewardship accruing £26 billion to spend on vital public services, to invest in the social care system, on schools, mental health, roads, defence and tax cuts.
Anthony Seldon’s new biography of the former PM suggests Hammond had been resentful of Mrs May ever since 1995 when losing the Maidenhead Tory nomination to her (he is pictured on Newsnight in 1993)
Philip Hammond and his wife Susan Williams Walker arrive for a state banquet with Queen Elizabeth II and German President Joachim Gauck at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin in 2015
Steady, if not spectacular, was Hammond’s watchword — as was economic growth while he was in charge of the nation’s finances.
But by nature more of an accountant than a politician, the 63-year-old will also be remembered for his role in blocking Brexit.
Many bitterly accuse him of disloyalty for voting against the Government line in order to prevent a No Deal Brexit — the very outcome he repeatedly refused to prepare for and fund while in Theresa May’s Cabinet.
By standing down now, instead of going through with his vow to engage in a ‘fight of a lifetime’ against ‘Brexiteer entryists’ who he said were attempting to turn the Tory Party into a ‘narrow faction’, he merits praise.
By not running as an Independent in the Surrey seat of Runnymede and Weybridge, he leaves the Conservatives with an easy 18,000 majority to defend.
And to Boris Johnson, his departure means one less troublesome Remainer former minister to be offered a seemingly permanent slot by the BBC to give a negative running commentary on the PM’s Brexit strategy.
Hammond follows another former Chancellor and arch-Remainer, Ken Clarke, through the exit door and there will be many Tories who voted to stay in the EU who will despair that their party has no place for such big beasts.
Rarely during his time as Chancellor did the one-time second-hand car salesman from Essex glow with sunny optimism. That said, he was responsible for presiding over some radiant times for the UK economy (he is pictured before the budget in October last year)
Yet Hammond has been out of sorts with the Tory leadership ever since the 2016 referendum, which he vociferously opposed.
It is no secret that he and Mrs May did not get on. Anthony Seldon’s new biography of the former PM suggests Hammond had been resentful of her ever since 1995 when losing the Maidenhead Tory nomination to her. Certainly, he was a very detached figure in her government.
Mrs May hated his attempts to explain economic realities to her. ‘Theresa, that’s not how it works,’ he is said to have told her.
Most famously, he bungled the 2017 Budget, and was forced into a humiliating U-turn over a planned rise in taxes on the self-employed. Backtracking threatened a £2 billion hole in the public finances over the following five years.
To Cabinet Brexiteers such as David Davis and Michael Gove, he was a constant and immovable object — the ultimate ‘Establishment Remoaner’ and witheringly dismissive of any opportunities of Brexit. Despite voting against the Government a few months ago, he is said to have been astonished to have the Whip withdrawn.
Hammond is a man who hates being out in the cold.
Even when ten of his fellow 21 rebels were offered an olive branch by No 10, Hammond said he was ‘agonising’ over whether he wanted Boris Johnson to win the General Election.
Philip Hammond on Tuesday announced he will not be contesting the general election on December 12 (he is pictured leaving the Houses of Parliament last month)
This was another misjudged act of self-harm and he had reached a point of no return. Without doubt, he realised this earlier, in August, when he demanded an apology from Downing Street after the leak of the so-called Operation Yellowhammer dossier warning about the perils of a No Deal Brexit. Government ‘sources’ said it had been deliberately leaked by a former (anti-Brexit) minister.
An outraged Hammond wrote to Mr Johnson, saying the ‘clear implication’ was that a minister in Mrs May’s government had leaked the document and he was speaking ‘on behalf of all former ministers to ask you to withdraw these allegations which question our integrity’. Indeed, perhaps, one of Hammond’s biggest weaknesses is his thin skin.
Ultimately, though, his political obituary will include much praise for continuing previous Chancellor George Osborne’s long battle to reduce the huge budget deficit inherited from the Labour government of Gordon Brown.
In the summer, shortly before he left office, the deficit fell to a 17-year low as a result of increased tax revenues and the squeeze on public spending. ‘The key thing for me is that we are, probably for the first time in a decade, in a position where we have choices,’ said a proud Chancellor Hammond.
As he walks away from politics, he, too, now has choices.
And also, the quiet satisfaction of knowing that Boris Johnson has a £26 billion election spending war chest only because of his own steady stewardship of Britain plc.