It's payback time as Spreadsheet Phil morphs into Freewheelin' Phil | John Crace

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Philip Hammond delivers his Mansion House speech




Back in business and stronger than ever: Philip Hammond delivers his Mansion House speech.
Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Out with the white ties and tiaras and in with the business suits. A week later than planned, owing to the Grenfell Tower fire, the chancellor came to the Mansion House to give his annual speech to the City over a working breakfast, not a banquet. And the unexpected informality seemed to have rubbed off on Philip Hammond.

The last couple of weeks have been very kind to Spreadsheet Phil. Not so long ago, he was a walking P45, trapped in a Treasury basement on the Maybot’s orders, waiting to be terminated when the predicted Tory landslide had been delivered.

But now he’s back in business and stronger than ever. As the Maybot’s grip on power loosens by the minute, so his tightens. No wonder he looked so chipper as he sloped into the hall. Spreadsheet Phil has morphed into Freewheelin’ Phil.

Andrew Parmley, the lord mayor of London, got proceedings under way with a not-so-veiled warning.

It was the City that contributed most to the public services on which the country depended, so it was only fair that the financial services sector should play a large role in shaping the Brexit talks. So here were their demands: maximum possible access to the single market and no jumping off a cliff. Over to you, chancellor.

Freewheelin’ Phil listened to all this with his heavily hooded eyelids barely open. Why was this bloke getting so worked up? It was only eight in the morning, for heaven’s sake. Had he overdone the espressos already?

If the mayor dude had been a bit more patient, he would have realised he was pushing at an open door. Freewheelin’ Phil was going to promise everything these suits wanted and more. And he was going to enjoy every minute of it. Not just because it was right for Britain, but because it would cause maximum distress to the Maybot. Now was payback time.

First in his sights was George Osborne – remember him? – though that unscripted gag was greeted in stony silence. Mainly because no one realised it was meant to be funny. It would take time for people to adjust to the new chill-out chancellor.

Still, at least he seemed to enjoy it. Which was the main thing. The audience should try not to think of the speech as being being about the economy and see it instead as a form of intensive gestalt therapy.

With the preliminaries over, Freewheelin’ Phil moved on to his main target: Brexit. His face crumpled into something he hoped was concern as he went through all the reasons why he thought leaving the EU was a bad idea before offering his prescription for minimising the national self-harm.

“Let me quote from the manifesto,” he said chirpily, “just in case, by chance, any of you didn’t read it.” He had been sure that would raise a laugh. It didn’t, but mainly because no one could quite get used to seeing the chancellor in such full-on confessional mode.

“Britain is an open country …” So we would continue to take in as many immigrants as we had jobs for. The Maybot could stick her figure of tens of thousands where the sun didn’t shine.

Freewheelin’ Phil now felt unstoppable. What he wanted was a bold and ambitious Brexit. One that was so bold and ambitious it wasn’t really a Brexit at all. One where the customs union basically stayed in place for an indefinite period of time. Anything that prevented Liam Fox from doing trade deals had to be good for the country. The international trade minister was at his most useful when he was doing nothing.

As he came to a close, Freewheelin’ Phil couldn’t resist one last dig. “Yesterday was a positive start to the Brexit negotiations,” he said, winking knowingly. That was “positive” as in “completely disastrous”.

David Davis had been even more hopeless than he had dared hope. “But it will get tougher,” he added. “Tougher” as in “impossible”. The chill-out chancellor punched the air and sat down. His speech had done for all the gung-ho Brexiters. He was back.

The mood of personal catharsis proved contagious. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, dropped a couple of quaaludes and stood up to say that although Brexit would undoubtedly make the economy worse, it wasn’t in the best of shapes anyway.

“On the positive side,” he concluded, before realising there wasn’t one. Freewheelin’ Phil threw Carney a dirty look.

There was a fine line between getting one’s own back and telling the unadulterated truth. And the governor had crossed it.