Hammond tries to keep EU friction at acceptable levels in Lords outing | John Crace

John Crace
Philip Hammond, the chancellor, appears before the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs. Photograph: PA

Midway through his appearance before the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs, Philip “Lurch” Hammond dodged a question on how the economy was coping with artificial intelligence – “Not very well, since you mention it, now we have a Maybot in charge of the country” – to insist that his main focus was on Brexit. “The quicker we can provide clarity the better,” he said.

Labour peer Alistair Darling gave a sigh of relief. Clarity on Brexit has been in short supply. Unfortunately it was to remain so.

Just because it would be better to give the clarity of which he spoke, it didn’t follow that Lurch was in any mood to oblige, though he could confirm that last week’s leaked report on being beastly to foreigners was not the government’s preferred position, unless the need should arise when it might become so.

What the government was basically after was for everything to remain pretty much the same as it was now for as long as it took for someone – not him, that kind of stuff was well above his pay grade – to see if they could come up with anything better.

“Business can’t cope with two sets of changes in any transitional arrangements,” Lurch announced confidently.

“So we would be remaining in the single market and the customs union during the transitional period,” said a relieved Darling.

Lurch looked puzzled. What part of the status quo didn’t the former chancellor understand? Of course we wouldn’t be staying in the single market and the customs union, because we would be automatically leaving both in March 2019 when we left the EU.

Now it was Darling’s turn to look confused. How could everything be the same when everything was fundamentally different? And why did the government imagine that the EU would be willing to let the UK carry on doing exactly as we liked, negotiating new third-party trade deals with whoever – on the hoof – when we weren’t prepared to accept freedom of movement? How could we have left the EU yet still be in a state of leaving?

Lurch shrugged. Just because.

Negotiating with the EU was a bit like sending a letter to Santa. You wrote what you wanted on a piece of paper, shoved it up the chimney and come Christmas Day Michel Barnier would deliver. The EU was bound to give us everything we wanted because we were nice. And British.

Why would they care if we were to offer India a more favourable deal than we were them?

Darling began to quietly sob, unable to work out if Lurch was having a nervous breakdown or was just catatonically dim. “If we already have frictionless trade,” he asked, “how can we possibly get a better deal than the one we have?”

“It may not be quite as frictionless as all that,” Lurch reluctantly conceded. “But we will try to keep the friction at acceptable levels.” Fingers crossed and all that.

Sensing the chancellor was now in danger of going seriously off-message, Norman Lamont, another former chancellor and an enthusiastic Brexiter, tried to get him back on track.

“This is very persuasive,” he said, summoning all of his legendary smarm. But just say that the EU didn’t choose to play ball. How well did he think Britain was prepared for a no-deal scenario?

Now Lurch could barely contain his laughter. Prepared? Who did he think he was kidding?

If no customs deal could be reached, then the lorries would be backed up miles along the M20 outside Dover. Britain would be in a state of gridlock within days. Any BMW stuck on transporters would be second-hand by the time anyone got their hands on it.

Lamont kept silent before Lurch could do any more damage. But it was far too late. Lurch had inadvertently given away the government’s position on Brexit. It was almost the same as Labour’s. Only even more confused.

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