Philip Hammond’s resignation Wednesday as UK finance minister thrusts the understated political veteran into the frontlines of a brewing revolt against new Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy.
The 63-year-old Oxford University graduate is one of Britain’s most respected officials among European leaders and a champion of London’s strategically vital financial hub.
Both hope he finds a way to keep Johnson from pulling Britain out of the European Union without a divorce agreement on October 31 — the “no-deal” option that experts think will sink markets and cripple trade.
Former London mayor Johnson was sworn into office Wednesday after pledging not to seek any further Brexit extensions, “do or die, come what may”.
But Hammond — nicknamed “Spreadsheet Phil” for his dogged devotion to strict budgets — has been that nagging voice who has kept telling Johnson that his promises of a bright no-deal Brexit future are misguided and dangerous.
“I will do everything I can from the backbench to ensure that parliament blocks a no-deal,” Hammond said a few days before he formally quit.
Hammond’s bookish looks and gentlemanly charm go along with an entrepreneurial spirit and a fervent belief in Britain’s ability to be a forceful voice on the world stage.
The Financial Times newspaper once called him “the product of Britain’s swashbuckling (Margaret) Thatcher era: a risk-taker whose business ventures sometimes did not pay off.”
Most of them initially did not — one venture to sell trips to Iran was thwarted by the 1979 Islamic revolution.
He eventually stumbled onto a profitable property development venture that reportedly made him into a millionaire with the confidence to enter politics.
There he excelled like few in his generation.
He was elected to parliament in 1997 and became transport minister when the Conservatives returned to government in 2010 under prime minister David Cameron.
Hammond later served as defence minister and then foreign secretary — a post that saw him cross paths with Iran again when Britain helped negotiate the 2015 accord with other world powers that limited Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
But he leaves the halls of power for the backbenches of parliament with a feeling of mission not quite accomplished.
“There’s quite a sense of things that we wanted to do, things that I wanted to take further,” he told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast earlier this month.
“I hope we’ve started them, but it would have been nice to have seen some of them finished,” he said.
“Yeah — a bit of sadness about that.”
Yet Hammond could still play a key role in deciding Britain’s future over the coming months.
A few dozen Conservative MPs are also openly trying to strip their own incoming party leader of the option of leaving with no-deal when the already twice-delayed Brexit deadline strikes next on October 31.
Hammond has the political gravitas and the ideological credentials to lead them.
He instinctively mistrusts European political institutions and their reams of red tape.
Hammond told the BBC he was once “quite happy to see the EU as something quite alien that was done to us”.
But he also argues that his nation of 66 million has become too “dependent” on the other 27 EU member states over the past 46 years to simply break away overnight.
Fears about losing access to the single European market of 500 million people saw Hammond vote “Remain” in the 2016 EU membership referendum.
Johnson fronted the “Leave” effort and now surrounds himself with fellow Brexit supporters who have spent weeks angling for Hammond’s coveted portfolio.
Hammond said with self-deprecating humour that losing ministerial privileges such as the chauffeured limousine might come as a slight shock.
“You know you are no longer a government minister when you get in the back of the car and it fails to move away from the kerb,” he joked in the BBC podcast.
“Probably just re-grounding yourself, in reality, is not a bad thing.”