This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics
Philip Hammond is perhaps best known as solid, steady and competent. He’s the man the prime minister might turn to if he wants the heat taken out of a situation or needs effective delivery of a policy. He’s from the same mould as Alistair Darling – very effective, if a bit on the managerial side. It didn’t do Darling’s career any harm, which is why it is mooted that Hammond has the potential to go very far indeed.
It is certainly true, however, that to colleagues and in the media he can come across as clinical and cold. He takes it on the chin when asked if he agrees that he can appear in this way. “Yes, I’m sure that’s true. But there’s nothing worse than pretending to be a gushing, natural performer when you are not – Ed Miliband springs to mind. Different people have different strengths in a team; some are natural communicators, so let them communicate. Other people are more comfortable managing and delivering, so let them focus on that.”
Yet, as I sit amid the military order of his office at the MoD, chatting about his life, family and career, it strikes me that there’s much more to Hammond than he allows the public to see. This secretary of state knows both his own mind and his own strengths; he’s deployed them to great effect on David Cameron’s behalf over the past seven years in cabinet and shadow cabinet.
But he’s also lucky (something every politician needs to be), as it all could have been very different for him. Hammond went to a 1970s Essex comprehensive school where there was a low expectation that anyone would go to Oxbridge – incidentally, and sadly, that still rings true today. No-one from the school, which opened in 1962, had ever gone on to Oxford.
When the headmaster summoned the students to a meeting about university applications, the young Hammond spotted that the timetable timeline didn’t allow for applications to Oxbridge. He used to love spotting the flaw in any system and, as a bit of a Smart Alec, piped up that the headmaster had assumed nobody was applying to Oxbridge. It caused some discomfort, as it was patently true, but early the next morning Hammond was summoned to the head’s office.
He was met with: “So, boy, you want to apply to Oxford, do you?” He had not made up his mind and had merely been trying to make a point, but, backed into a corner, he replied, “Yes sir, I want to read PPE.” The bolshie Hammond who just wanted to annoy his headmaster sat the exam and won a scholarship. There’s serendipity to what happened, but Hammond has continued to fall on his feet.
For example, in every Conservative party leadership election since 1997, he has backed the wrong horse. He makes light of it now, explaining to Conservative audiences that the secret to his progress was that he “backed David” – David Davis, that is, not David Cameron. Immediately after that 2005 result, he had texted his business partner, saying, “I expect to be available for a more active role forthwith”, believing that Cameron would not include him in his plans.
Fortunately – yet again – he next texted Cameron: “Congratulations. I genuinely didn’t think you could do it”. Cameron texted back, “Nor did I. Come to the party”. Hammond reminisces: “Slightly against my better judgement I went to the victory party and, to my complete surprise, was offered a place in the shadow cabinet a couple of days later.”
One can go through the defence secretary’s career and find Lady Luck’s signature everywhere. In 1994 he fought the Newham North East by-election, a pretty hopeless endeavour, but one he felt would stand him in good stead for better seats the following year.
It proved pivotal to getting short-listed in safe Conservative seats, as by some good fortune the Lib Dem candidate defected to the Labour party two days before the poll. Hammond finished second and Labour refused all interviews on the night because of a strike at the BBC, leaving him to dominate the broadcast media. He had made a name for himself.
Then, in November 1995, he had a dilemma with selection meetings in Runnymede and Horsham on the same night. Central Office told him to forget Runnymede as it was “stitched up” for Michael Fallon, but he ignored the advice and pulled out of Horsham. The rest is history.
Hammond says he was always instinctively a Conservative, despite his father being a left-leaning public sector official. “There was a sense of terminal decline about Britain,” he says.
“I just felt the left was naïve and failed to understand human nature, that people feel responsibility for themselves, for their families, for their communities, but in that order. The idea of imposing some top-down socialist model was ingenuous, so I developed a mindset that was instinctively pro-enterprise.”
The belligerent middle-class lad from the local comp did find Oxford a challenge. He noticed a gap between himself and those from private schools when it came to debating skills and an ability to express things. Hammond had to learn fast to get his first. That Oxford education, coupled with experience gained from a successful business career in the private sector – he’s one of the few politicians to have had one – has given him the necessary self-confidence to sit at the cabinet table.
As a whole, Hammond feels strongly that the political class has made a mistake in forcing parliament down the route of ‘full-time parliamentarians’. “It’s perfectly possible,” he affirms, “to combine the role of a backbencher with outside interests, as was common when I entered the House. In the future we may regret that we forced people to choose, perhaps at a time in their 30s, between continuing a career and coming into politics full time. I’m not sure that’s in the best interest of our constituents or the country.”
Due to his successful business career, Hammond has been labelled by some in the media as one of the richest men in cabinet, with an estimated fortune of £9m. He denies that this is the case, and observes that there’s little correlation between the generating of wealth, social class and educational background.
“Lots of people,” he says, “have done extraordinarily well and educated themselves.” However, he does believe there’s clear evidence that formal educational opportunities have left the professions dominated by those who have had access to selective forms of education.
The PM’s Thatcherite call to aspiration in his conference speech would clearly chime with the beliefs of a small business risk-taker like Hammond. Although he doesn’t believe the Thatcherite label is relevant any more, because Thatcher won the intellectual argument against socialism, he still displays all the hallmarks of one.
He lights up when he talks about the values of the Conservative party: “Family, self-discipline, financial prudence, standing on your own two feet. These are things that, actually, Labour voters would hold as values they would adhere to. To win an election we have to reach beyond the Conservative heartlands, not by abandoning our core supporters but by identifying concerns they hold which have a much wider resonance – the economy, jobs, prosperity, immigration and our relationship with Europe, for example. These issues reach a wide swath of the electorate and include many who consider themselves natural Labour voters.” Exactly as Thatcher identified in the 1970s and 80s.
The government’s reforms in welfare, he believes, are resonating with even Labour voters who don’t see a big enough difference between their living standards and those of their neighbours “who don’t get up in the morning and go out to work, and they feel that is morally wrong. You’ll find almost universal agreement to this in the Conservative party and among people who are Labour voters, but who are workers.”
Given Hammond’s staunch dedication to the Tory party, it’s hard to believe he almost resigned from Cameron’s front bench. In July 2007 when the PM did his shadow cabinet reshuffle, he asked Hammond to move from shadowing work and pensions to shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. It looked and felt like a demotion and his initial instinct was to walk away and go back into business.
However, Cameron assured him it was not, and that George Osborne specifically wanted him to do that job. “We need to get the economy back on the political agenda”, Cameron asserted.
Hammond reluctantly accepted, but his personal career luck continued; within four months the economy was centre-stage. The MP for Runnymede and Weybridge would have wished it otherwise, but Northern Rock failed and the economy went to the top of the political agenda and stayed there.
Hammond found himself at the heart of the most important political debate of our time. As the economic situation deteriorated, he became a fairly permanent fixture on TV and radio from then until the general election. Matthew Parris, at the time, unkindly described Hammond as “having the manner of a 1960s bank manager”. It wasn’t meant to be flattering, but as it happened, that was exactly what the public wanted: a steady pair of hands whose owner understood his brief.
In 2010, Hammond was expecting to go to the Treasury but ended up at transport. He accepts that a Lib Dem had to go to the Treasury so that both parties in coalition owned the austerity agenda. He is very complimentary about Danny Alexander in his desired job: “I think he’s done a brilliant job and has been exactly the right person.”
Does he feel, however, that George Osborne had a hand in his appointment to transport? “I never had that conversation with him,” muses Hammond, “but I would imagine George would have been acutely aware how disappointed I was not to go to the Treasury job. I like to think he would have wanted to preserve my input in another economic department.”
He had clearly never planned to go to transport, so when the PM appointed him, he had to think very quickly about his plans before he saw the media pack.
It was only a matter of minutes – that’s the nature of government – but he believes that despite having spent 18 months there and implemented many policy initiatives, he’ll probably be best remembered for getting rid of the hated bus lane on the M4.
As misfortune struck Liam Fox, it meant a big promotion for Hammond. He entered defence at a time when Fox had made some big strategic and political decisions within the department, many of which involved selling deep cuts to his own party.
However, there was still work to do, and, Hammond believes, there still is: “If you’re involved in a transformation of this scale, the biggest change programme in the world, you have to alter behaviours. If you don’t, it’s just a temporary change. My objective is irreversible alteration, but this is going to take longer than [just] one parliament.”
The defence secretary is proud that last month was the first September in living memory when the MoD has not had to be battling a budget crisis. He says: “I hope I’m beginning to give people in defence a sense of a vision for the future of the department, and how they will fit into it. People are our greatest asset, and I recognise that many of them feel they’ve taken a bit of a hit over the last couple of years. Having balanced the budget and got the juggernaut back on the road, I recognise that the need now is to rebuild the trust of our people and their confidence in the leadership of the department. That’s my big challenge for the next couple of years.”
It’s a typically honest, clinical assessment, but it’s not all doom and gloom at the MoD. Hammond laughs as he recounts that when he arrived at the department he literally could not understand what they were talking about. “The military speak is a code of acronyms and jargon that’s designed to exclude – and it worked. The civilians around them do it even more aggressively as a badge of ‘belonging’. My wife now says I do it, and she can’t understand a word I’m saying when I talk about work. After about a month, an American general in whom I confided gave me the answer: ‘When anyone uses an acronym, insist they spell out what it stands for. In nine cases out of ten, they’ll have forgotten and be made to look stupid.’ It worked.”
The job is ultimately about life and death situations. Hammond recalls how, on his second day in the job, he was required to chair his first targeting board, authorising a strike on a high-value target in Libya that one of our aircraft had located and had in its sights.
Two weeks later in Gioia del Colle in Italy, where UK planes were based, he met the female fighter pilot who executed that order, and learned that for her, too, it had been a first: her first live combat mission.
Hammond has recognised how lucky he is to be surrounded by such great professionals. Perhaps it’s not luck after all – perhaps its judgement.
Rob Wilson is MP for Reading East