What's behind Hammond mutterings?

Theresa May and Philip Hammond Image copyright PA

The prime minister has "full confidence" in the chancellor.

In days gone by, even the very fact that question was posed was the canary in the coalmine - when journalists knew a minister was in real trouble, proper trouble, it was time to ask that question.

If there was any hesitation, any delay, any raise of the eyebrow from the Number 10 official cursed with taking that day's lobby briefing, it was a sure sign that the unlucky Cabinet member was on their way out.

'Baffled'

And woe betide the minister about whom the answer was not given in the affirmative. Failure of the Number 10 machine to express "full confidence" was basically an immediate P45.

Nowadays political crises flare and burn out so fast that the question is posed rather more frequently. It is maybe surprising though that it has been asked already about the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, barely three months into the job when he is one of the most senior figures in the government (if you're actually wondering, yes the Number 10 spokesperson did today express Theresa May's "full confidence" in him).

Number 10 sources say they are "baffled" by the mutterings that Mr Hammond is an obstruction, or that he's holding up the Brexit process. Treasury sources say the stories, including the suggestion that he might resign, are "utterly ridiculous".

So what is going on?

First off, Philip Hammond has made no secret of his hope that the UK can retain economic ties with the EU that are as close as possible, and is on the record defending immigration - holding out the possibility that the control of migration might not be as tight after we leave the EU as some other ministers believe.

'Cooler'

So for MPs suspicious of the motives of some ministers who backed Remain in the referendum, the chancellor is an obvious political target. For passionate Brexiteers he is an obstacle to a short, sharp departure from the EU who must be overcome.

It's also the case, as I've written before, that the relationship between Number 10 and Number 11 is very different now to the days of George Osborne and David Cameron.

One Cabinet minister tells me it is "deliberately cooler", although "it isn't personal". Mr Hammond's allies are adamant that he isn't being frozen out, they say he is in and out of Number 10 all the time, and shares a good working relationship with the PM.

But there is no question that the Treasury does not wield the same kind of political influence as under the previous administration, so therefore is easier to attack.

And what hasn't changed is an attitude towards the Treasury that has been widespread across Westminster for longer than I've been around - That its officials and identity as an institution are far too clever by half.

Shakiness

Especially when Treasury ministers are also in talks to cut colleagues' budgets in the run up to the Autumn Statement, it's not exactly unheard of for there to be animosity towards Number 11.

Above all, perhaps the "full confidence" question being posed is a symptom of a wider reality. The government has not yet decided how it wants to pursue our exit from the EU.

There are lots of options on the table, but no decisions have been taken, and Number 10 is very reluctant to give anything away (interestingly, some Number 10 insiders think that position is not sustainable but it's how they are playing it for now).

So any hint of stubbornness, any sign of delay, any comments like Mr Hammond's on migration noisily fill the relative silence. He has made it clear he won't be pushed around, having not been a true believer. And for some hardcore Eurosceptics again that puts him in the firing line.

Punchbag

Other sources depict a general shakiness around the new(ish) government - unresolved on the biggest issue in front of them, and trying to chart a way through.

We are in the very early days of years of negotiations, with many battles ahead.

Brexit is going to be a fight, inside the government and between the UK and the rest of the EU. Fairly or not, Philip Hammond might become the Brexiteers' punchbag despite having the prime minister's "full confidence".

But in time what's more important is whether the public can have confidence in what any of them are up to.