Rumours have abounded in the past 24 hours that Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond may not be returning to 11 Downing Street irrespective of whether the Tories win or lose the election.
Questions over Mr Hammond’s future are nothing new. At various points there has been speculation of rifts or tensions between him and Mrs May, or between the Treasury team and Downing Street, which is pretty much the same thing. And those suggestions the Chancellor could be on the way out were hardly abated after the ‘omnishambles’ Budget earlier in the year, when the Government backtracked on keynote policies almost before the ink was dry.
But Mrs May’s refusal to expressly say Philip Hammond will remain in post following the election and expected Conservative victory has only fanned the flames. Pretty much every political commentator is now wondering whether the Chancellor’s days are numbered.
This may be no more than a proverbial storm in a teacup. Mrs May might have just decided not to answer what she deemed to be a hypothetical question. She might have wanted to leave some wiggle room for a more root and branch reshuffle post election. Who knows? She might consider Mr Hammond so indispensible as to think the question ludicrous. Or she might be keeping her counsel and not overtly backing the Chancellor because if she does she can expect similar questions about Boris Johnson, Maria Miller, Andrea Leadsom – indeed every member of the Cabinet.
What if the speculation is true though? What if anything should we read into it?
Perhaps not very much. Cabinet members being moved or demoted because they disagree with Number 10 or cross the boss isn’t anything new (just ask George Osborne). If relations between the PM and the Chancellor have broken down, then a move would make sense surely? It doesn’t, after all, preclude Mr Hammond from holding another senior post or one of the other great offices of state.
But the speculation should give pause for thought, particularly in the sense of the different views the Prime Minister would or would not be getting. It’s accepted as fact that Mrs May’s co-chiefs of staff rule the Downing Street apparatus with an iron fist. And while Mr Hammond’s future has been the subject of conjecture, other authoritative or forceful figures (Liam Fox, David Davis, Boris Johnson) have also had their long-term Cabinet postings questioned.
Add to that the focus on Mrs May as a personality in the election. Tory candidates are known to be using her name more prominently than that of their party in their election literature. There is something of a cult of personality being cultivated, at least to a degree, in the Conservative Party – if only for the period of the election campaign. But with the potential for a Tory landslide come 9 June, we ought to ask what the decision making process would like if notable voices like Philip Hammond are taken out of the picture.