Hammond Shifts Brexit Tone as He Dodges Questions on May

  • U.K. will leave the EU’s customs union, chancellor says
  • He refuses to say how long prime minister can stay in job

May Under Pressure as Brexit Talks Begin

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said Britain should aim for a gentle departure from the European Union, an explicit challenge to the confrontational strategy adopted by the now weakened Prime Minister Theresa May.

British officials travel to Brussels Monday to formally start the EU departure negotiations, amid confusion over whether the government is going to change its priorities after failing to win voter endorsement in the June 8 election. At home, May is struggling to stay in office as her Conservative Party questions both her election strategy and her handling of a London tower block fire that has left scores dead.

Philip Hammond

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Asked on the BBC how long May would keep her job, Hammond swerved the question. “What the country needs now is a period of calm while we get on with the job in hand,” he said on the “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday. “Theresa is leading the government.”

May’s government is still working out the implications of the shock election result, which saw her Tory party lose its majority. On Wednesday, its legislative program will be set out by Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of parliament. Without the votes to force bills through parliament, May is opting for an unusual two-year session, to give herself time to pass Brexit legislation.

Sunday U.K. newspapers contained reports of possible leadership challenges to the prime minister. Tory lawmakers are weighing whether the damage involved in replacing her would be greater than the risk of keeping her in place.

Meanwhile May has moved to quell criticism that she was slow to respond to the fatal Grenfell Tower apartment block fire in West London. On Saturday, she met survivors, and later acknowledged failings in the way different branches of government responded. “The support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough,” she said.

QuickTake Will Brexit Now Be Hard, Soft or Scrambled?

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, implied the problem was a lack of compassion on May’s part. “I think everybody cares to an extent, some to a deeper extent,” he said on ITV. “And some show empathy in a different way to others.”

‘Pragamatic’ Way

But even if May can stay in place, her weakness was demonstrated by the freedom with which Hammond criticized her Brexit policy. Having said on Friday said that Brexit needed to be handled in a “pragmatic” way, on Sunday he said Britain would still be leaving the EU’s customs union, but added that “transitional structures” would be needed to smooth that departure.

Hammond is due to give his annual Mansion House speech on the economy on Tuesday. It was delayed from Thursday after the fire. He’s planning to use the occasion to push back against hardline Brexit rhetoric. But he said this didn’t mean staying inside existing institutions.

“The question is not whether we’re leaving the customs union,” Hammond said. “The question is what do we put in its place.” He reiterated the government’s goals of avoiding a hard border with Ireland, which will remain in the bloc, and allowing goods to move freely between the U.K. and the EU. And he said it was “a statement of common sense” that “we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge.”

Hammond also rejected the slogan “no deal is better than a bad deal,” which May repeatedly used during the election campaign to argue that she would be willing to walk away from the Brexit table if other countries didn’t give her enough. “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain,” Hammond said on the BBC.

Immigration Goal

The chancellor described his position as pushing for a “jobs first" Brexit. Though he didn’t spell it out, this is a shift from May’s focus on immigration. And while Hammond restated her commitment to reducing net immigration to below 100,000, this too came with a qualification. “We have to be very clear that we’re not going to do it in a way that damages the economy,” he said.

He used similarly moderating language on questions of Britain’s austerity program. “We’re not deaf,” he said when asked about voter frustration with spending cuts. “I understand that people are weary after years of hard work to rebuild the economy.” But he said he still wanted to eliminate the government’s current account deficit by the middle of the 2020s.

Hammond also criticized May’s election strategy, which saw the Conservatives lose their majority in Parliament. “My role in the election campaign was not the one I would have liked it to be,” he said, arguing that the Conservatives should have talked more about their economic record.

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