Political theatre at its soppiest

Not a dry eye in the house -- except the press gallery

The admission of the fear he felt every time he stepped up to take Prime Minister's questions came right at the end of a suitably accomplished final performance from Tony Blair. He should not have worried as the tributes flowed from his political opponents inside and outside his own party. Politically, it was largely meaningless. He effectively confirmed his new role as an envoy in the Middle East. He admitted he had not always been the best House of Commons man. He paid tribute to his adversaries.

However, for this observer, the roll call of dead in Iraq and Afghanistan that has become a ghastly tradition before PMQs, hung over the whole occasion. No one would expect him to admit that the original decision to go to war was wrong. But now he is leaving office, Blair could have recognised that the situation in Iraq is a murderous nightmare that he had failed to imagine or plan for. That would have been more of a tribute to the troops who still have to serve there than the usual platitudes about what a great job they are doing.

The standing ovation was spontaneous from the Labour benches and although the opposition benches resisted for a few seconds, in the end they too rose to their feet. Only the press gallery, jammed full of Blair's feral beasts, remained seated and dry eyed.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.