How Theresa May casually decided that Brexit meant the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union – the fascinating and revealing interview with Philip Hammond

3rd February 2021

One response to the news that former chancellor Philip Hammond has given a candid and critical interview about the Brexit policy (or lack of policy) of the Theresa May administration is to sneer and jeer, announce that he should have resigned rather than be party to it, and to ‘like” and RT some tweet saying so.

And then to not give it a further thought.

Another, more worthwhile reaction is to look out the interview, and to read and consider it carefully.

And in doing so, you should compare what Hammond says now with your recollection of what Brexit seemed like at the time, from the outside.

What emerges is a picture that many of us onlookers – conscious of the issues at stake but unimpressed by the government’s shallow public messaging – suspected was true all along.

The interview – which is part of an impressive series of interviews with ‘witnesses’ of Brexit by UK in a Changing Europe – should be read in full by anyone wanting a real understanding of what happened within government on Brexit.

But below are some examples which, at least for me and my commentary, substantiated what some of us believed to be the case at the time – including about the casual nature of the huge decision to leave the single market and the customs union.

The transcript of the interview is here.


On the creation of the pop-up government departments, the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, Hammond says:

‘Creating a new Government department, frankly, is a pretty cost-free signalling mechanism for an incoming Prime Minister. So, the Department for Exiting the European Union – a ludicrous notion, absolutely ludicrous; a rookie civil service trainee could tell you that that was a stupid idea – and the Department for International Trade, were both gestures.

‘They were ways of bringing in clear, committed Brexiteers to the Government, and plonking them in a place where they could assert their views, rally their troops, and, she hoped, provide a focal point for the hard-line Brexiteers in the parliamentary party. As well as finding out the hard way how difficult this was all going to be in practice.’


On the botched re-negotiation that preceded the referendum (which was so limited because it misunderstood what the European Union could offer without a treaty change):

‘We all interpreted German pragmatism as support for a more British view of the future of Europe. That was clearly not correct, so we definitely overestimated the flexibility of the Europeans.’


And perhaps most significantly, on the run-up to the fateful October 2016 conservative party speech in Birmingham – and its aftermath:

‘I was completely stunned by the speech that she made at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016. I hadn’t seen the relevant part of it in advance. I’d had no input to the speech. Nick Timothy kept me completely away from it. […]

‘I was completely and utterly horrified by what I felt was almost a coup: a definition of Brexit without any proper Cabinet consultation at all. 

‘My assessment of Theresa May’s Prime Ministership, in terms of Brexit, is that she dug a 20-foot-deep hole in October 2016 in making that speech and, from that moment onwards, cupful by cupful of earth at a time, was trying to fill it in a bit so that she wasn’t in such a deep mess. […]

‘It was a disaster on all fronts, a total unmitigated disaster that scarred her Prime Ministership and should have sealed Nick Timothy’s fate, but I think she only realised later how badly that had constrained her ability to deliver any kind of practical Brexit at all.’


What this interview indicates – if not demonstrates – is how crucial those first few months were after the referendum were to the shape of Brexit, from June to October 2016.

That was when, in my view, the battle for Brexit was won and lost.

Until the conference speech it was possible to conceive of a number of different possible Brexits that could follow the referendum result.

(Or in my (incorrect) view at the time, that it was possible that the thing would just be delayed and delayed, as the sheer magnitude of the task became scarily apparent.)

But after the October speech, the only Brexit which was politically likely would be the absolute version with the United Kingdom leaving the single market and the customs union.

And the only way that such a Brexit could have been stopped, again in my view, would have been if the respective leaders of the labour, liberal democrat and other opposition parties had handled the prospect of a general election differently in late 2019.

In essence: in the whole of the story of Brexit so far, only (a) June to October 2016 and (b) November/December 2019 were the real turning points where Brexit could have turned out substantially different after the referendum.

The interview with Hammond, in particular, reminds us that there were non-Brexiter ‘pragmatists’ as well as (in his word) ‘refuseniks’ in those first few months after the referendum.

And notwithstanding the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ slogan of May in her party leadership bid of that summer, it was still possible to conceive of different outcomes.

The pragmatists could have prevailed.


But something happened – a decision was casually made that will turn out to be as consequential for the United Kingdom as any other immensely important decision in our history.

And that decision was made by a prime minister who, on Hammond’s account, did not understand the import of her decision, and without reference to either cabinet or parliament.

An extraordinary moment, and one which is becoming more extraordinary over time.


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60 thoughts on “How Theresa May casually decided that Brexit meant the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union – the fascinating and revealing interview with Philip Hammond”

  1. Two things that stuck out for me;
    – how Theresa May’s views were driven entirely by her hatred of immigration, and
    – how prepared the Tories were to lie even before the referendum, as an example Hammond says that no Senior Tories (except May?) believed in the “tens of thousands” target for immigration, it was just a line to feed the public.
    As you have said until there is a price to pay for lying to the electorate, it will continue.

    1. I agree she hated immigration. Once she became PM her inbox was overflowing with emails from angry voters demanding the end of free movement. Just another factor leading to that speech in October 2016 and the pickle we are in now. Sadly she didn’t listen to her own constituents, like me, who overwhelmingly voted to remain.

    2. Although Theresa May has to take a share of the blame for Windrush and a climate of hostility, she was one of many, starting with James Callaghan, who have played an active part in this shameful saga.

      David Cameron as party leader was responsible for the “tens of thousand” target. Indeed during the coalition he actively encouraged such dedicated defenders of the purity of the British race as Julian Brazier to organise backbench pressure on Theresa May as according to Cameron she might be soft on immigration. Even if this was solely a device to erode Theresa May’s popularity in the party and Julian Brazier’s swallowing of the line another of many examples of his low intellectual capacity I suspect Brazier was telling the truth when he boasted of his role in this squalid campaign.

  2. The whole Brexit process from the decision on the referendum to the October 2016 speech seems to highlight a total lack of professional governance and rigour in the way that political decisions are made.

    Other sectors are either regulated (finance, medicine, law) or subject to corporate negligence legislation. If a CEO of a bank made such momentous decisions without consultation, they would be in legal peril I am sure.

    Is it time that we start thinking about how we apply regulation, governance and rigour to decisions made by Cabinet ministers? Don’t forget until 1916 there was no Cabinet secretariat and Cabinet discussions were not even minuted!

  3. It is an interesting example of the Cabinet as a political entity having ceased to have much meaning. This most fundamental of decisions (how to leave the EU) should surely under the older traditions of British governance have been made by the Cabinet as a collective. (Everything points to Boris Johnson being as bad or worse than May in this regard). Without much in the way of formal of legal changes, the UK has drifted into a semi-elected executive of one person, which seems a terrible way to run a country

    1. Attlee didn’t tell the Cabinet about the decision to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Cabinet discussion under Tony Blair was usually, according to accounts, perfunctory. There is nothing new about this situation, unhealthy though it may be – except perhaps the increasig power of special advisers. I thought this a very striking aspect of this extremely important interview.

      1. We know that manufacturing an A bomb was discussed in a cabinet committee under Attlee. The Treasury was making progress in opposing the idea until Ernest Bevin the Foreign Secretary arrived late, having as they say lunched well, and said he wanted the bomb and after the way he had been treated in Washington over sharing nuclear secrets he wanted the union flag painted on it.

        We also have detailed accounts both in the cabinet minutes and the Macmillan Diaries of how Churchill’s post-war cabinet was presented with a secret paper and asked to agree to proceed with a British H Bomb without notice; some members including Macmillan insisted that the cabinet had time to reflect so the eventual decision was only taken after the paper had been circulated and discussed at a later meeting.

  4. It still hurts 4 years on. I remember being stunned when May made that red lines speech. It was so clearly Nick Timothy at work and so clearly politically foolish in that it was henceforth extraordinarily difficult to get to a position that would be short of shooting off our collective foot in order to ensure that we weren’t seen to be running away.

    Once that speech was made, there was no obvious way to leave the EU, as the Referendum suggested, without also leaving the SM and CU and thereby damaging ourselves economically and creating the Northern Ireland problem. Only a change of governing party or a second referendum would have achieved anything other than the current disaster.

    It was, among other things, extraordinarily politically stupid.

    1. Agreed. I watched that “red line” speech several times and couldn’t understand how it had not been subject to any, even minimal scrutiny which would have thrown up the paradox it created and which could never be resolved without a fundamental shift in the status of Northern Ireland. Even then May seemed incapable of understanding the problem she had created in setting up the prospect of the hard brexit we now have.
      She further compounded the problem by agreeing to the backstop without consulting her fickle, fair weather “allies” in the DUP who later would be thrown under the bus by Johnson.

  5. Fascinating stuff – in a very ghastly and grisly way.

    Time alone will tell if the U.K. can sustain a survivable level of economic decline to avoid being forced – begging, crawling, mewling to the EU or EFTA (or any organisation that could facilitate) to take us back (on their terms) into the single market and/or customs union, our self-expulsion from which is sheer lunacy.

    Developing DAG’s reporting & analysis of Hammond’s revelations we have quite a rogue’s gallery of villains who facilitated this catastrophe.

    David Cameron – the fons et origo of the recent stages of this whole disaster. Naive & total failure even to try to understand the EU and how it works. Alienated centre right allies by aligning with the EU far right coalition. Supinely and lazily gave in to pressure from the Neanderthal wing of the Tory party (crypto UKIP). Colossally bungled the terms of the referendum and positively stifled the Remain campaign. Left his troops in tatters and fled the field.

    Theresa May. I think DAG/Hammond have said enough above.

    Jeremy Corbyn – just by being completely unsuitable to lead a government handed the stories the 2019 election.

    Jo Swinson – gross political naïveté (and the self-serving advice of Chuka Umunna) facilitated the 2019 election just as the Remain alliance was getting close to forcing Johnson into a second vote.

    The People’s Vote cast of characters – for truly appalling narcissistic bad behaviour.

    Boris Johnson – for behaviours not befitting anyone in any public office, let alone that of prime minister.

    1. Personally, I don’t think the Remain Alliance was ever close to getting a second vote. The Leavers in charge worried that would be the end of Brexit. May proved that elections don’t always go the way you want – so why risk it when you get what you want if you don’t do have another vote?

      1. Well, Johnson was stymied in parliament and the word from informed insiders was that he was close to capitulating. But I agree that we don’t know for sure.

        1. Initially after the Brexit vote I thought that is it, disaster for the country. But then the talk turned to what kind of Brexit would ensue and one option was to stay in the single market – which I then erroneously thought would be the most likely, especially considering how narrow the vote was. The ensuing slow motion car crash of the next four years proved me dramatically wrong. Every single step took us closer to the precipice of no deal or the hard Brexit we have ended up with.

          Of Hammonds wryly humorous account, the descriptions of certain Brexiters stand out and his comments on the Brexiters only desire in the Tory party are to take the UK down to the norms of US economics and society status stand out. This is borne out by the various twitter accounts of the hardline Brexiters and their fawning love of all things right wing American (including Trump when it suited them).

          As someone working for a European company headquartered in Germany and Holland I mourn the loss of free movement and the single market, to see it and experience it in action was to have true freedom – as opposed to the supposed isolationist freedom so beloved of many who voted for Brexit.

          1. The thing is, as we look at 45% of Americans having almost re-elected a klepto-fascist who has stolen everything not nailed down, & killed close to half a million Americans, before having launched a murderous attempted violent overthrow of democracy that he is now going to have validated by one of America’s 2 major political parties, only partly because they are terrified of being murdered by their own voters, the notion that imposing US governance, their levels of endemic racism & bigotry, & their lack of any social safety net on this country even as the EU ratchets up retaliatory sanctions on us doesn’t suggest that their version of ‘Brexit Britain’ will even be governable absent some vast oppressive Belarus style police state, & even then it will be such a horrific place to subsist in that people will be fleeing abroad as fast as they can.

  6. Both the specific point (and others in Hammond’s interview) confirm that when push comes to shove, the principle of Cabinet government is a polite fiction. Crucial decisions are taken by a small coterie of people – Thatcher/Powell, Blair/Campbell, May/Timothy, Johnson/Cummings – and a large proportion of those people are completely unaccountable to anyone except their political master.

  7. So we could say that Timothy is responsible for the calamity.
    On the other continued UK membership of the SM strikes me as unlikely, though that may be hindsight bias.

  8. The Hammond interview is particularly useful and revealing, offering more than some of the other interviews in the same series. As Mr Hammond suggests, other interviews in the series (Chris Grayling, Caroline Lucas, Gisela Stuart) are focused on referendum tactics and political relationships rather than economic fundamentals.,

    An event struck me as worthy of further investigation. Upon appointment as PM, on that very morning of 13 July, one of the first roles announced my the May administration was that of Liam Fox as Minister for the newly formed Department for International Trade.

    At that moment it was crystal clear that the UK was going to leave the Customs Union, yet there was no journalistic or political enquiry into the inevitable consequences of such a choice. Mr Hammond acknowledges the point, implying that the consequences weren’t thoroughly thought through. I beg to differ, because the determination of one’s own trade agreements inevitably implies separation from EU efforts, which rules out Customs Union or Single Market membership.
    Very shortly prior to the establishment of DIT, the narrative from the May camp was of a more conciliatory agreement in which the UK retained market access. Only after her appointment did the meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’ come into common use, to buy time for clarification.

    My best guess is that the infamous ‘men in grey suits’, in this instance of an ERG persuasion, seem to have cut a deal to vote Theresa in return for a deal toward the ‘harder’ end of the spectrum, overseen by new appointments of their place-men in new departments. Knowing her Europhobe strategy advisor Nick Timothy’s inclination toward political radicalism, he would probably have endorsed the suggestion.

  9. Perhaps the most telling phrase in your piece, David, is ‘on Hammond’s account’.

    Here is a man who is at least as slimy and disingenuous as the worst of them on either side of this inglorious episode.

  10. I have a hard time with the statement “the pragmatists could have prevailed”.

    I don’t support Brexit at all, and having lost the referendum, it’s clear to me that a “soft” Brexit (remaining in single market and customs union) would have caused less damage to the UK’s economy.

    But it’s clear that the Brexit we’ve got is the one the Conservative Party – taken as a whole – wanted. The referendum is best understood as part of the Conservative Party’s internal decision making. For a generation, they couldn’t agree amongst themselves on Europe, but they could agree that they would hold a referendum and stick to the result.

    Having held a referendum and got a “Leave” vote, there were some voices in the Conservative party, such as Hammond, who would have preferred a softer Brexit. But they were a minority within the party. Remaining in the customs union and single market, would have been criticised by many in the Conservative party, and certainly by the UKIP sorts outside it, as “Brexit in name only”. For many Conservatives, the purpose of the referendum was to stem the UKIP threat once and for all, one way or another. Adopting a Brexit policy that was wide open to UKIP attack would, for those Tories, have made the whole exercise pointless.

    So my view is that, if Theresa May had pushed for a softer Brexit, she would have failed and been ousted. As it happened she pushed for quite a hard Brexit, failed and was ousted anyway. But I don’t see how she could have had a different fate by being less hard-line in her Brexit policy.

    A majority party gets to implement its programme. The Prime Minister leads her party, but she also follows it. 90% of the Conservative Party either actively wanted a hard Brexit, or was prepared to tolerate it, given the UKIP threat. So that’s the Brexit we got. There was no other Brexit on offer that could have commanded anything like this level of support within the ruling party, and therefore no other version of Brexit could realistically have been implemented in either the 2015 or 2017 Parliaments.

    The only alternative history that seems plausible is that the Article 50 notification got deferred for a long time whilst the debate rumbled on. And then before the issue is resolved, something else comes along (COVID?) that puts the whole Brexit thing in a different light. But even then the issue would not have gone away. There was a referendum on a Scottish Assembly in 1978; the ongoing debate about which side really won that vote was swept away by Thatcher’s 1979 general election win. But the question did not go away. Scotland eventually got its parliament in 1999.

    I don’t want to say a hard Brexit was always inevitable. At the time I had hopes that wiser heads would prevail. But I can see in hindsight that hard Brexit was in the narrow self-interest of the people actually making the key decisions, namely Conservative MPs. For any alternative history to be plausible, it needs to account for that considerable gravitational force.

  11. I think you miss a third potential turning point – after the General Election of 2017. The country had apparently rejected her handling of Brexit so far, by not returning a majority Government, and so could (should) have been taken as a turning point. Instead May decided to put her fingers in her ears and double down

    1. Fits in with Hammond’s comments on her not knowing the difference between determination and foolishness (I paraphrase).

  12. I think Hammond’s answer to the second question is the first time I’ve seen a senior Tory admit what the referendum was really all about: –

    “David Cameron, if you go back to the Bloomberg speech, I think was trying to do two things. He was trying to shape the debate and trying to head off a UKIP threat”

    In a period when they thought they would have to relinquish power at the 2015 GE (having only just squeezed back into power by way of a coalition in 2010) the thought of losing a hand full of seats to UKIP genuinely worried the Tory party, the addition of the referendum pledge was to neuter this insurgency.

    Somewhat ironically, in the 5 years since the 2015 election, UKIP simply took over the Tory Party, and here we are.

  13. With respect, several of these comments seem to me to overlook the most striking of Hammond’s revelations, namely that most of the politicians involved, especially including May, hadn’t the slightest understanding of what they were doing, or of the implications of their decisions – such as to create the Department of International Trade. That is not news to DAG, but most of us who take any sustained interest in public affairs find it hard to remember that most politicians think (if that is the word) more like Question Time’s hand-picked gammons than like us, and have a similar level of information. That, after all, is why they are successful politicians and we aren’t. But apart from offering a salutary reminder to historians it does raise huge questions about public education, to which I have no answer.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. As a constituent of his, I wrote to Mr Hammond in February 2017 and said this:
      “I have no confidence that the Government can execute such a complex, multi-faceted endeavour, given its performance to date. It constructed an unnecessary referendum process that was fundamentally flawed, in order to placate the nastier elements of the electorate. It failed to execute it well, showing a woeful understanding of the psychology of voters. It has already made a few mis-steps with regard to the legal challenges it has faced. The Brexit white paper seems rushed and superficial, and starts with another Big Lie, that 65 million people are ‘willing us to make it happen’.”
      I got an emollient reply back which of course completely failed to address this point and hasn’t aged very well.

  14. It is perhaps worth reflecting on the two roles of the occupant of No 10 Downing Street when the Conservative Party is in office. One of the roles is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The other is Leader of the Conservative Party.

    Although in practice the Prime Minister is a great deal more than primus inter pares, in theory the Prime Minister is only that and (without making himself or herself a Secretary of State as Wellington did in November 1834 until Peel could return from Rome and kiss hands) cannot exercise the statutory powers of a Secretary of State. This gives some substance to cabinet government.

    The Leader of the Conservative Party however is an autocrat. Article 16 of the current party constitution reads: “The Leader shall determine the political direction of the Party having regard to the views of Party Members and the Conservative Policy Forum.” “Having regard to” is no restraint. Is Mr Johnson going to kowtow to the CPF, run by the defeated candidate for Canterbury, Anna Firth? And how are the views of “Party Members” to be determined when the Party Conference does not even vote on motions? By consulting Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home?

    Until Edward Heath became leader, the leader did not even attend the conference of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist (pre-1912 Constitutional) Associations, which in any case only comprised English and Welsh associations. They addressed a rally which took place after the conclusion of the conference.

    There were occasions when the conference might have caused great embarrassment and even the fall of a government – in 1921, there was much apprehension about the attitude the conference (meeting in Liverpool!) would take to negotiations between cabinet ministers and Irish plenipotentiaries. In 1954 there was a tense debate over GATT which marked the effective end of imperial preference. Macmillan was nervous about a debate on the UK’s applying to join what was then the Common Market. There was a very lively debate in 1972 over the acceptance of the Ugandan Asians in which the Home Secretary Robert Carr with the aid of a powerful speech by the young David Hunt saw off a Powellite attack. But these were rare events – most Conservative Prime Ministers have shared the view of Balfour – “I would sooner take the advice of my valet than a Conservative conference.” Ken Baker memorably recounts how Mrs Thatcher would repeat the views of her hairdresser to her cabinet…

    Theresa May’s use of the Conference to set the direction for Brexit was unusual to say the least. Philip Hammond complains that she did not consult her cabinet. If she was acting as Leader of the Party rather than as a Prime Minister (and primus inter pares) she was plainly out of order. But was she out of order as Leader of the Party? Surely not. What she had done is use her position as Leader of the Party to make policy for a government.

    In David Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg Speech he pledged a referendum on EU membership. But this was not government policy. It was an announcement of Conservative Policy for a future Parliament made by the Leader of the Conservative Party. It was not agreed by the Cabinet as Coalition Government Policy. We know that George Osborne (then Chancellor) advised against it. We know from Ken Clarke that the cabinet was not consulted. If David Cameron had declared a referendum to be government policy the cabinet would have broken up.


    Theresa May’s use of the 2016 Conference would have been completely in order if she had set out the policy the Conservative Party would place before the electorate in an election. She did not call an election until the late spring of 2017 and at the time of the Conference discouraged any idea of an early election.

    The great example of calling an election to endorse a new policy is Baldwin in 1923. Ruminating on the state of the nation on a return voyage across the Atlantic Baldwin decided that tariffs were essential to foster economic recovery but his predecessor Bonar law had pledged himself not to embark on such a policy before the 1922 election. So Baldwin called an election, held in December 1923, with not dissimilar results to the 2017 election – the loss of overall majority. As the Conservative Manifesto of 2015 both pledged holding a referendum and remaining in the European Single Market (“We say: yes to the Single Market” – page 72) arguable Theresa May should have announced that she would in due course call an election to obtain consent to her new policy. Instead she seems to have used her power as Party Leader to announce a change in policy.


    It seems to me that Philip Hammond’s use of the word “coup” is justified. However neither he nor any other member of the cabinet resigned immediately. Theresa May might be forgiven if her reaction was “Humbug”.

  15. After becoming PM, TM was largely trapped by the need to demonstrate her Brexit credentials.

    It’s obviously just a counter-factual, but it is interesting to speculate what position on the SM and CU Johnson would have taken if he had become PM immediately after the referendum. Would a more pro-Brexit PM have been in a position to go for a softer Brexit on the ‘Nixon in China’ model?

  16. The interview was a lengthy, but worthwhile read. What is most striking about it, and the subsequent behaviour of brainless-Boris and his puppet master is just how the creatures of their “advisors” these politicians are. In the case of the fairly odious Timothy, it became clear that they were also the moving force behind the manifestoes, yet they seem neither answerable to party or nation.

    There is a vast, democratic deficit in this country that must be addressed- it could be termed the political iceberg. Unless we tackle this, we may as well stop being a democracy and either draw govenments by lot or just aim for a benign dictatorship.

  17. After May won the Conservative leadership election in summer 2016, my friends and I relaxed. I just switched off. I thought with someone boring and sensible in charge of the negotiations, a single market Brexit was inevitable, with some renegotiation of freedom of movement like Switzerland has. I can still recall the horror of May’s conservative party speech when she set us on a slow motion car crash outside the single market. The stock market crashed, Twitter exploded, May had to furiously backpedal. I still don’t know why she did it

    1. She did it because Nick Timothy wrote it and she didn’t have the skills or inclination to think what the words meant.

      In many ways, that moment was much more of a turning point than the referendum had been. We could have ended up with what the headbangers would have called a BRINO, but which would still have met the Referendum’s advice. We didn’t.

      Why May didn’t think through the consequences of what she said is entirely unclear. The implication in the interview is that she saw everything through the lens of immigration, but even so you would have thought she would have the intelligence (political, logical, historical, emotional) to analyse what she was about to say.

      It is a tragedy for us and for her that she didn’t stop to think.

      1. It is worth remembering, that at the same time Gove was removing references to Windrush from the school curriculum ( vs, May was deporting British Citizens as part of her Hostile Environment policy

        This was despite warnings from officials of the likely consequences of that policy

        So I think you are being generous suggesting that she didn’t stop to think

        It certainly is tragic though

  18. There is also the line at the end of the speech which cements further the direction (and competence) of the negotiations.

    ‘And let’s get behind the team of ministers – David Davis, Liam Fox, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson – who are working on our plan for Brexit.’

  19. Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to anyone. Prior to the referendum campaign she claimed to be a Remainer but kept her head down throughout the campaign, except for one weird speech in April 2016 in which she advocated withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights while remaining in the EU.

    As far as I’m aware, non-membership of ECHR is pretty much incompatible with EU membership or even membership of the Single market with the “four freedoms”. So once the referendum vote had gone in favour of Brexit and Theresa May became Prime Minister, a policy of hard Brexit should not have been a surprise to anybody.

    Remember also that her leading rival for the leadership was Andrea Leadsom, who withdrew in embarrassment before the final run-off vote after saying disobliging things about Theresa May’s childlessness. But the influence of the group including Leadsom was not significantly reduced as a result. One can only wonder (possibly with a significant shudder) how the Brexit negotiations would have gone with Leadsom in charge.

    1. Perhaps we should note Ken Clarke’s very much more positive view of Theresa May’s speech during the referendum campaign. He regarded it as a strong case for remaining.

        1. This was his verdict in his very readable autobiography, A Kind of Blue, so he had no need to be anything other than objective

  20. This interview with Philip Hammond is very revealing. What is staggering is how the Tories and the British political class in general completely failed to understand the motivation and dynamics of the European Union. The casual assumption by David Cameron that all he needed to do was to get Angela Merkel on his side (and that he had managed to do this) is just one example. Philip Hammond only realised a little bit of where Britain could exercise influence once he was Foreign Secretary – like Dominic Raab only realising that a lot of lorries pass through Dover once he got that job.

  21. Surely Hammond’s piece and now Nick Timothy’s piece in todays Telegraph are the first smoke signals of the jockeyings in the Brexit blame game. An amusing but low level game and likely to surface but rarely – the Brexit game has a long way to run yet – and the main riders are still firmly ensaddled. Just as we are saddled with the result.

    Plainly anyone, including Hammond could see Brexit was a daft idea. But pushed on by the hard right our MPs chose to go along with a wrong policy rather than end up out in the cold looking for a proper job. I reckon any move toward rational politics will be very slow because there are no easy winning economic formulae and an MP’s pay etc is quite a comfort.

    We will just have to ride out the storm and hope we don’t founder on the rocks. By the time calmer weather comes we will likely have thrown most of our cargo and treasure over the side. But not our politicians and we will still not have found our place in the world.

  22. I know Nick Timothy has already come out attacking Hammonds version.

    There is a question on these interviews on how much is truthful how much is rewriting to covers ones perceived place in history. I have my own views having worked at Treasury.

    Doubt we will ever truly know.

    That said my view has always been when parliament couldn’t decide and indicative votes were happening. Remainers lost the argument. I voted remain pragmatically don’t rock the boat, EU partner, why waste resource and opportunity cost. I was in favour of the EFTA Norway style either as a landing zone or for transition to a longer agreement in a decade or so.

    From my view It was only after Boris Johnson got elected and any chance of a second vote was so comprehensively destroyed, that calls for a compromise and be listened to really took root. Key points and players turned it into a 2nd vote full on Brexit. That played into the ERG etc. Hands and the british sense of fairplay was always going to come down to brexit over 2nd vote no matter the form of brexit.

    Oh and there was a continued and serious dereliction of duty by the civil service and Government from Cameron on. What contingency planning was being done before negotiations begun. Seriously?!

  23. “ How Theresa May casually decided that Brexit meant the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union”

    Sorry, but this isn’t true. The 2016 EU Referendum was fought on 4 pillars:

    1. An end to ECJ jurisdiction;
    2. The end to freedom of movement;
    3. No more payments into the EU budget;
    4. The ability to strike our own trade deals.

    And the only way these four pillars can be met is by leaving both the single market and customs union. In other words, it was the British people who decided, not Theresa May.

    1. “this isn’t true”

      Asserting something not to be the case does not make it untrue.

      None of the four ‘pillars’ (?) you mention were in the referendum question. The referendum question was about the issue of membership. And it is possible to be part of the CU and SM and not be a member.

      Furthermore, the leave campaigns did not promote your four ‘pillars’ – and many leave politicians were in favour of EEA or similar arrangements (either knowingly or unknowingly)

      And, finally: you do not ‘meet’ pillars – unless you walk into them outside a building.

  24. Hammond’s account of the European Union in the first part of his interview illustrates all too well the argument previously advanced on this blog, that Brexit was the consequence of British political leaders failing, over many years, to make a positive case for British membership.

    “For better or for worse the European Union existed and, for better or for worse, the UK had become a part of it…. I was never impressed at all by the sometimes ridiculous political posturing of the European Union…. As Foreign Secretary, I discovered that the European Union was a very useful platform and a multiplier of British influence…. I was deeply sceptical of the idea of a European defence policy…. the “European nation state” idea which always, frankly, embarrassed me, and still does…. a ludicrous over-extension by the European Union… But…what we had was, frankly, an extremely valuable forum which leveraged British power…. The very small inconveniences of having common standards and common sets of rules were far, far outweighed in my judgement by the economic benefit to the UK…. My approach in January 2012 was that, if we can just win this argument now… we can steer the future direction of the European Union and shape it in an image that works for Britain…. Britain would have become the dominant power in the European Union.”

    In short, ‘for better or worse’ the UK has got entangled in this embarrassing, ludicrous thing, but, if we look on it coolly and transactionally, we can make it work for us and become its leader, using it to further British economic and diplomatic goals.

    Perhaps he is speaking as the fox who didn’t get the grapes, but, if this is the voice of a supposedly arch-Remainer on the Tory benches, no wonder we are lumped with Hard Brexit!

    1. A bit harsh on Philip Hammond. You are right that it was a disastrous error to allow all the arguments over the shape of the EU to be conducted by corporate lobbyists and civil servants. But the rot started before Philip Hammond entered the Commons. When I suggested at the time of Maastricht that failing to mobilise at grass roots level risked a disaster I was told by lobbyists that they were very pleased with the way things were going and did not want any grass roots campaign.

    1. This was in theory a consultative referendum.

      As a veteran on the 1975 arguments over Scottish Devolution I did my best to persuade others that the requirement of 40% of the electorate voting one way of the other for a result to be declared decisive made excellent sense.

      Lord Norton of Louth (Philip Norton) I know tried to get people to focus on the folly of the arrangements which allowed a narrow majority on a consultative referendum to become the decision of the country.

  25. This raises many themes worth thinking about, but to me three stand out:
    1. The ability of a small extremist minority (in this case the ERG) to effectively dominate in politics by holding the ‘balance of power’.
    2. The way in which it’s possible for there to be a large number of people in favour of an action when it’s considered as a general concept (in this case Brexit) but far fewer for any specific implementation of that action.
    3. The quality of elected officials is variable. The most able people may not be those who are motivated to enter politics.

  26. David

    Do you intend to revise this article in the light of Nick Timothy’s response in the Telegraph, in which he basically calls Hammond a liar?

  27. From my German perspective, what stood out is the mis-interpretation of Germany’s understanding of the purpose of the EU to begin with, and it’s something the UK’s politicians seem to either never have understood or just disregarded entirely:
    it is a peace project. Yes, trade; yes, cooperation etc. etc.
    Yes, many of us find it quite annoying sometimes, too. It’s clunky, slow, inefficient, unequal, and often disregards long-term consequences of decisions made in the moment.

    But the fundamental idea, from the inception of the Steel & Coal Union, was to leverage trade and co-operation, so that we finally stop making war on each other.

    And that is the piece that is fundamentally missing in Mr. Hammond’s analysis – just like so many others.

    1. That was my father’s view too. He fought through WW2, and afterwards was very keen that I would not have to do something similar. He was not a great lover of the EEC, but thought it worthwhile because it reduced the chance of war.
      I think later generations take peace for granted.

    2. Bravo, a german view.

      There are millions of us in the U.K. who understand this, and always understood it.

      We are devastated at the loss of our European citizenship and of our country’s successful and cooperative role (if you ignore a few spats deemed necessary to keep the eurosceptics quiet) at the heart of Europe.

      There are very many of us who have no intention of following the Brexit fanatics’ instructions to “shut up, suck it up – you lost”. We will continue to fight (peacefully) to rejoin the European project.

    3. It is the view of a lot of us in the UK too. It was even the view of the sainted Winston Churchill. It was also the means by which Ireland stopped being full of armed people trying to kill people with a different view of their nationality.

      It isn’t surprising that some Tory remainers saw the EU solely in economic terms. Some Tories see everything only in economic terms.

  28. It is tempting to think that the economic arrangements – the Iron and Steel Community, then the Economic Community – were the instruments of peace and it is certainly arguable that in the 1950s they did make war between France and Germany impossible. However it is surely arguable today that French men and French women and German men and German women would not fight each other. Certainly it is unthinkable that Alsace would ever again send troops to both sides to fight in a Franco-German war

    There is also evidence of a change in the German character. I recall an incident in the late 80’s when in a break from a conference a young German asked an English girl what she was thinking of and she perhaps unwisely replied “I was wondering what you would look like in an SS uniform” Several young Germans burst into tears and said will no one ever forgive us for what our parents did?

    The dismantling of borders may well have helped bring this about. If so maintaining free movement especially for each successive younger generation may be the guarantor of friendship between France and Germany.

    1. “However it is surely arguable today that French men and French women and German men and German women would not fight each other. ”
      I do hope you are right, but I fear you are not. We only have to look at Yugoslavia, and I fear Ireland/NI to see that peace can be broken.
      Without trying too hard I can think of several ways in which armed hostilities could breakout within Europe, and even within the EU, which could then escalate.

    2. “However it is surely arguable today that French men and French women and German men and German women would not fight each other. ”

      Peace is something to be worked at, and actively maintained. Friendship and co-operation don’t just stay in place. Otherwise, we would all have learned our lessons after WW1, or the Napoleonic Wars, or some other cataclysm, don’t you think?

      The many facets of collaboration within the EU, to my mind, facilitate this maintenance through collaboration. Youth programmes, such as school exchanges (my own experience), foster better understanding and maybe even long-term personal friendships. And that makes it a lot harder to see “them over there” as enemies.

      Likewise, and maybe less idealistically: if I can sell my wares more easily to more people, and make more money this way rather than from another war, that’s a good deal.

      I am one of those who grew up in the West Germany of the 80ies and 90ies. We were taught in school that the building of the EU served, amongst other things, as a trust building exercise between us and our many neighbours. I was a teenager when the wall came down.

      As such, I have often wondered what would have happened if the EU would not have existed and we’d all still have been in our own little boxes. I doubt whether Mr Mitterand and Mrs. Thatcher and all the others would have helped re-unifiation along.

  29. Hope someone is composing a record of these and the better threads from other journals-FT of course, but it would also be good to read the best arguments from the Times + Telegraph, such as they are.
    May help give us perspective once the dust settles. Sorry, if …

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