The Tories seem to enjoy Chancellor Philip Hammond having the nickname “Spreadsheet Phil.” It gives the impression that Hammond is accurate, good with detail and boring, but in a solid, reliable way.
However, a closer eye on Hammond reveals the man has more in common with the last French queen Marie Antoinette.
Earlier this month Hammond was telling the 1922 Committee — the group that brings all the backbench Tory MPs together — that the Conservatives needed to do more for the young, or they’d lose votes.
He asked MPs to “submit in writing ideas for the Budget” to help young voters as they faced problems with debt and housing.
Now “Spreadsheet Phil” is supposed to be good on the detail. But putting out the suggestions box for what to do about millions of people does seem a bit vague. Then it got worse.
According to one MP present at the meeting, Hammond said: “Look at us, no mortgage, everybody with a pension and never had more money in the current account. You compare that to the younger generation, if they go to university they are hit with debt…”
Now Hammond was recognising the young are hard done by. But only in the same way that Marie Antoinette recognised the peasants were hungry.
But just as her (apocryphal) solution — “Let them eat cake” — was shaped by her skewed, inside-the-palace view of the world, so in his French monarchical moment, Hammond revealed his actual view of the world is that those outsiders are suffering, but everyone inside his Tory tent has a stuffed bank balance like never before, a big pension and a paid-off mortgage.
A former “one nation” Tory prime minister, Harold MacMillan, famously said that people “have never had it so good.” He thought the mix of the consumer society and the welfare state meant everybody in the country was doing better.
But Hammond’s “never had it so good” starts — and ends — with his Tory MPs. MacMillan accepted the new welfare state to spread the “good.” Spreadsheet Phil on the other hand is paring it back, while he boasts about his fellow Tory MPs’ riches.
This is far from the first time Phil has lifted his eyes from the spreadsheet and blurted out some odd views formed by a man very comfortable with his money.
Back in June, Hammond was being interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. He was trying to make a case for doing Brexit slowly, by stages. But did so with a bizarre analogy. He said Brexit was like buying a house and “when you buy a house you don’t necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it.”
This mystified many because the vast majority of house-buyers do move all their furniture into the house when they buy it. They had to move their furniture out of the house they sold when they move into the new one.
Most people who’ve bought a house have been through the stress of “moving day,” waiting with the van of furniture for the sale to go through. The furniture has to get in the house the day you bought it because any delay will lead to extra costs.
Except, it seems, for very rich people like Hammond, who can easily afford more than one house, or storage. It was another Marie Antoinette moment.
In July the Sunday Times reported that he was so 18th-century French queen that he shocked Prime Minster Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
A Cabinet source told the Sunday Times said they were discussing public-sector pay and “Philip used a fairly inflammatory phrase. He said they were ‘overpaid.’ That caused some general astonishment. His overall tone was that we shouldn’t give them more cash because they are overpaid.”
Both May and Johnson responded by telling the Cabinet that “we should not say public-sector workers are overpaid.”
They were shocked that he was blurting out that nurses or school cleaners or bus drivers had loads of money. It sounded like a French queen saying the peasants could start on the cakes if the bread was in short supply.
Out-poshing Johnson is some achievement. Hammond had also out-gaffed the Foreign Secretary in another area. According to reports, Hammond told another Cabinet meeting, discussing transport, that train-driving had been made so easy that “even a woman” could do it.
It looks like Hammond is using neanderthal sexism to justify looking down on “ordinary” people such as train drivers, or indeed all women.
The important thing here is that Hammond is not just some saloon bar bore, some golf club snob. He is actually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of our economic policy.
He is happy to let austerity go on because his friends have stuffed wallets, find moving house easy, and thinks the peasants — sorry, public-sector workers — are doing just fine.
This views probably come from his personal background. Hammond made a lot of money from his business, Castlemead. The company invested in old folks’ homes and other healthcare businesses (perhaps because care and sickness are first and foremost money-makers for Tories).
Between 2003 and 2010, Castlemead paid Hammond £3.75 million in dividends. Some press estimates put his personal fortune at around £7m. And, according to a 2010 Channel 4 Dispatches programme, “How the rich beat the taxman,” Hammond used a variety of “tax planning” manoeuvres to keep his tax bill down.
It’s down to investigative journalists to try to dig up the truth, because in 2017 Hammond ruled out publishing his own tax return. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn both published theirs.
When asked if he would do the same, Hammond replied: “No, I have no intention of doing so.” He said publishing tax returns was just “demonstration politics” that “isn’t helping to create a better atmosphere.”
Yet again Hammond acted as if what he did was none of the peasants’ business.
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