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Theresa May refuses to rule out sacking Philip Hammond

The Prime Minister's answers confirmed that all is not well between No.10 and No.11. 

Theresa May and Philip Hammond were at Canary Wharf's One Canada Square to launch an attack dossier on Labour. But it was blue-on-blue warfare that the assembled media were more interested in. In his earlier appearance on the Today programme, Hammond refused to deny fraught rows with No.10 (merely dismissing the reports as "tittle-tattle") and even appeared to confess to swearing. 

The Chancellor has clashed with Nick Timothy, May's co-chief of staff and the author of the Conservative manifesto (which will be published tomorrow), over economic interventionism (which No.11 has resisted), the National Insurance U-turn (which saw a Hammond aide brand Timothy "economically illiterate") and the Tories' tax lock (which the Chancellor pre-emptively suggested would be dropped).  

Against this unhappy backdrop, May was asked whether Hammond would remain in his post after the election. "It's true to say that the Chancellor and I, and every other member of my team, are focused on June 8th," the PM replied, conspicuously refusing to guarantee Hammond's job. The Chancellor, meanwhile, hastily clarified that while he did "occasionally swear", he was not referring to "any particular conversation". Hammond added: "We work very closely together, she has got an extremely strong team around her. I work very closely withr her team - some of them are people I have known for many, many years. We do work very well together as a team. All this media tittle tattle is just that - media tittle tattle." 

At the press conference's close, May was invited to return the "endorsement". "Very happy to do so," she replied, again refusing to confirm Hammond's position. She then somewhat awkwardly added: "As Philip says, we have worked together over the years, for many years. Longer than we would care to identify [laughter] - that's an age-related comment, nothing else." 

May's answers did nothing to dispel the impression that all is not well with No.10 and No.11. Indeed, they merely reinforced it. "Embarrassing for Hammond," tweeted his shadow John McDonnell. "It seems May has no confidence in her own Chancellor. Tory splits at the top." 

If the relationship between May and Hammond has often appeared troubled it is partly because they have followed the uniquely close David Cameron and George Osborne (Cameron always confirmed his friend's position). But there also genuine tensions. That May has refused to rule out sacking Hammond, after Amber Rudd was tipped as a replacement, is one of the election's most significant moments.

It's true that prime ministers like to keep their options open and that, were May to confirm Hammond's position, she would be challenged to issue similar guarantees to Boris Johnson and David Davis. But there is no more important relationship in government than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. With the polls suggesting that a Conservative victory remains inevitable, expect May to be pressed again on who will occupy No.11.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.