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  1. Politics
17 July 2017updated 20 Jul 2017 12:33pm

Theresa May must get a grip on Tory infighting, or they’ll turn to someone who can

Philip Hammond has few political friends, and his value to the cabinet's soft Brexiteers is limited.

By Stephen Bush

Philip Hammond’s so sexist he said that “even a woman” can drive a train these days – the Sun revealed on Saturday. Philip Hammond’s so out-of-touch he said that public sector workers are “overpaid” – the Sunday Times revealed yesterday. Philip Hammond’s so Europhile, he’s trying to frustrate Brexit – the Telegraph reveals today. “Hammond accused of Brexit treachery” is their splash.

You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to work out that Telegraph story might have something to do with how the first two stories ended up in the press. Hammond himself blamed the leaks – he denied the train story and didn’t-quite-deny the public sector pay story – on his Brexit stance on Marr yesterday. Allies of the Chancellor have gone further, telling the Sun‘s Matt Dathan that Michael Gove is to blame for the leaks.

The attacks on Hammond are based on a lot of things, and his scepticism as far as Brexit in general and the value of leaving the customs union in particular go are a key factor. But the anger, I’m told, at his remarks over pay transcended the Remain-Leave battlegrounds. (No fewer than five cabinet ministers confirmed the story to the Sunday Times.)

Hammond’s political isolation is twofold. There is a caucus in the cabinet for holding the line on fiscal restraint, and there is a caucus in the cabinet for a softer Brexit. But there isn’t a caucus for both, and Hammond’s difficulty is he is loved by neither. (In a way, he’s the last real Thatcherite left: into both fiscal discipline and the single market.)

There’s also a sense among Remain-supporting ministers that before the election, Hammond was their air raid shelter, the only pro-European too big to be moved by Theresa May. Now, of course, everyone is too big to be moved by May so his value to the cabinet’s soft Brexiteers is limited.

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But the effect of the row may, surprisingly enough, be to rejuvenate the PM, at least for a little bit. Backbenchers aren’t enjoying the public rows at all, and the hostile follow-ups – the Mirror splashes on Hammond’s property empire with the headline “Hammond the Hypocrite” today – only add to their unease. There’s a growing sense among the 2005 and 2010 intakes – who, don’t forget, mostly won their seats from Labour and so are doubly uneasy about Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent in the polls – that the cabinet’s big beasts, holed up in Tory fortresses, are risking their seats for short-term advantage.

That’s behind what might be the most significant Tory story in today’s papers – the FT’s George Parker reports that the 1922 committee have written to May saying that backbenchers will support her if she opts to sack feuding ministers and get things back under control. But there’s a risk for the PM, too: if she can’t get a grip on the infighting, backbenchers will turn to someone who can. 

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