While Theresa May was hard at work on affairs of state in the front section of the RAF Voyager plane taking her to South Africa yesterday morning, a senior aide briefly left her side.
Slipping behind the curtain that separated the Prime Minister from the dozen or so journalists accompanying her on the three-day trip, he told them she would join them shortly for an on-the-record chat.
‘Of course, I know you will want to ask her all about the Chancellor,’ he observed pointedly.
Theresa May delivered brutal put-down of Philip Hammond on trip to South Africa
The Prime Minister seized the opportunity to give vent to the rage that has been quietly simmering since Thursday
Thus the stage was set for Mrs May to deliver her most brutal put-down to date of Philip Hammond after his latest dire warnings on a no-deal Brexit.
According to those on the plane, she offered him no support as she practically spat out words that had clearly been rehearsed in advance, accusing her Chancellor of getting his figures wrong.
The Prime Minister seized the opportunity to give vent to the rage that has been quietly simmering since Thursday.
That was the day Mr Hammond managed to wreck the carefully stage-managed release of the first tranche of technical government papers offering ‘proportionate’ advice to prepare Britain for exiting with ‘no deal’.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab had made a well-regarded, balanced speech.
He said that while the ‘over-riding priority’ was to secure a good deal, the nation had to be alert to every eventuality.
Yet within hours, the Chancellor had intervened to cause maximum embarrassment.
PM offered him no support as she practically spat out words that had clearly been rehearsed in advance, accusing her Chancellor of getting his figures wrong
The Treasury released a letter from Mr Hammond – a letter that had not been cleared with No 10 or Mr Raab – that took Project Fear-style scaremongering to new heights
The Treasury released a letter from Mr Hammond – a letter that had not been cleared with No 10 or Mr Raab – that took Project Fear-style scaremongering to new heights.
Written to Nicky Morgan, the Remain chairman of the Treasury select committee, it warned that no deal could wipe almost 10 per cent off GDP over 15 years and burden Britain with £80 billion of extra borrowing.
This crude act of political sabotage was a gift for the Labour Party and the Remoaners in the Conservative ranks. But, much more damagingly, it has been seized on by EU negotiators.
At A stroke Mr Hammond undermined the Government’s stance that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ by warning in apocalyptic language that it would be much worse for Britain than the rest of Europe.
There was an immediate meltdown in Downing Street.
Relations between Mrs May and Mr Hammond, lukewarm at best in the past few months, were plunged into the deep freeze.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who is close to Mr Raab, summed up the furious mood in No 10 writing: ‘The timing of the letter was either spectacularly incompetent or deliberate. I know what I think.’
The majority of Mrs May’s team share his view, believing the release of the letter was a deliberate act by a ‘Remainer’ Chancellor who, when it comes to Brexit, relishes living up to his nickname of ‘Eeyore’.
PM told journalists that the Chancellor had been using, as the basis for his letter to the Treasury committee, data which were merely ‘work in progress’ back in January
And that’s why Mrs May chose to signal so clearly in advance her intentions, before joining the press pack ‘huddle’ 35,000 ft above the ground yesterday.
She was seizing this opportunity to put Mr Hammond in his place. She told journalists that the Chancellor had been using, as the basis for his letter to the Treasury committee, data which were merely ‘work in progress’ back in January.
In other words, the Chancellor had got his figures wrong. And not for the first time.
Before the last election it was widely assumed that Mrs May would sack Mr Hammond if she won with a big majority.
The Chancellor had signed his death warrant in his Budget before the election with plans to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed that breached his party’s manifesto. An embarrassed and enraged Mrs May was forced to drop the changes.
The inconclusive election meant she had to stick with Mr Hammond, and he’s been flexing his muscles ever since. But her supporters say the darkness of her mood in the past few days matches her rage over the botched Budget.
Any student of politics knows a bad relationship between a Prime Minister and Chancellor can have fatal political consequences.
Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, resigned in 1989 and the following year she was gone. Tony Blair’s premiership was scarred by rows with Gordon Brown.
It seems Theresa May’s relationship with Philip Hammond is fast going the same way.