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.