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13 October 2017

The Tories are split over how Brexit is going – but so is the country

Philip Hammond could still be playing the politics of this a lot, lot better.

By Stephen Bush

Is there light at the end of the tunnel as far as the Brexit talks go? Should Philip Hammond be sacked? Your answers to those questions probably say as much about where you stand on the Remain/Leave question than anything else.

After a glum assessment of where things stand from Michel Barnier gives cause for gloom, a leaked document showing that the European Council may begin preparatory work on trade negotiations has given reason for hope. Both are legitimate, but the problem is that regardless of whether the talks move on, the underlying problems causing them to stall, particularly the question of the Irish border, are going to cause a crisis sooner or later.

What about Philip Hammond? Tory grandee Nigel Lawson has called for him to be sacked and pressure is growing on the Chancellor as a result of his refusal to put money aside to “plan for no deal”.

There are a couple of points worth noting here. The first is that while I know balanced budgets are so 2000-and-late, as a result of George Osborne’s repeated failure to hit his targets, there is no money to “set aside”. What the Conservatives are actually calling on is for more borrowing, more taxes, more debt: that is to say, they are quietly holing their big argument against Labour under the waterline.

The second is that Hammond could still be playing the politics of this a lot, lot better. Yes, preparing for “no deal” is a fantasy (how does one prepare for telling cancer patients they have no isotopes for treatment, etc?) for reasons Chris Giles details well in the FT this morning. But after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union it will still need a bigger customs infrastructure, both in terms of personnel and government property, than it currently has. The Chancellor could begin some of that spending now.

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The problem is that the Conservative Party has lost the ability to think about Brexit rationally, which bleeds through to everything else. Precious few on the centre-right seem to have noticed the mismatch between lecturing the feckless young about why they should stop whining because at least they’ve got Wi-Fi one week, and calling for a bonanza of borrowing to build a few warehouses in Dover the next. Fewer still have a plan for Brexit that includes seeing off Labour as well as implementing Brexit.

Because it’s not just the Tories who are increasingly split into two worldviews, it’s the country as well. The latest Times/YouGov poll  finds that just 18 per cent of people who backed a Remain vote in 2016 see Theresa May as the best available PM, while 54 per cent of Leave voters do. We already know that Remainers and Leavers have radically different ideas of how the economy is performing. And the difficulty for any party is working out how to carve out a route to a stable majority among those two nations – whatever happens to Hammond or the Brexit talks.

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