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Hammond’s Professionalism Commands Respect, But Also Cuts Him Off From The Wider Public

Last Updated: Friday, November 8th, 2013

Philip Hammond is the very model of a certain kind of modern politician. When I visited him on Thursday at the Ministry of Defence to interview him for ConservativeHome, I could not help admiring his air of impregnable competence.

Like Alistair Darling on the Labour side of politics, Hammond possesses managerial gifts of a very high order, and has also mastered the art of calming almost any situation down. As Defence Secretary, he this week had to make the difficult announcement that after 800 years, Portsmouth will stop building warships.

In future, all work will go to the Clyde. This is a bitter blow for Portsmouth, and will make life considerably harder for any Conservative standing for election in that part of southern England.

Many people suspected the work had gone to Scotland in order to avoid handing the Scottish nationalists a gift in next year’s referendum on independence. But Hammond himself insisted that there is an unanswerable business case for favouring the Clyde: and such is his reputation as a technocrat that I did not see anyone seriously attempt to deny that this is his genuine opinion.

Hammond has a valuable reputation for following the logic of a situation, rather than playing games or yielding to emotional impulses. This lack of playfulness is perhaps one reason why, as he explained in his ConHome interview, he has cracked down hard on the ancient practice of senior officers having “cosy little lunches or breakfasts or dinners” with politicians and journalists, in order to plead the case for the Navy, the Army or the RAF to get more money.

So Hammond leads an unusually united department, where budget discipline is no longer subverted by special pleading carried out through informal channels. He regards that kind of lobbying as a betrayal of the “modern purpose” of our forces, which is to co-operate with each other in order to deliver the greatest “defence effect” in the future, rather than to fight selfish battles to preserve regiments or dockyards which have ceased to be cost-efficient.

As I said, I admire Hammond’s professionalism and sense of purpose, and his grip on what has most often been an unmanageable department. But these qualities are bought at a price.

Politicians like Hammond find it very difficult to connect with the wider public. He uses appallingly dreary language: “we have available to us a fixed envelope of resources” is an expression which appears, with minor modifications, over and over again in his pronouncements.

Few normal people can bear to listen to Hammond for more than about three sentences. In a crisis, this can be a good thing: it is one of the ways in which he calms things down and makes people feel that this is actually a routine problem which can be left to him to sort out.

But when it comes to building popular support for the armed forces, and expressing the nation’s gratitude to them for what they do, Hammond is pretty useless. The emotional side of war is beyond him.

Nor is he able to lead any kind of public debate about our defence priorities. Hammond prefers a strictly private debate, conducted behind closed doors in the MoD, followed by rigid adherence to whatever line has been decided. His critics say he is a cold fish and a control freak.

It is possible that Hammond’s evident competence will mean he is respected enough to win votes, even if he is not loved. Among Tory activists, he is a popular figure: they recognise him as a genuine small-c conservative, who has spoken out against such trendy measures as the same-sex marriage Bill.

When I interviewed him, he said of that measure: “It was damaging because it created a perception that the leadership was in a different place to the core of the party’s active supporters.”

That kind of remark makes the Cameroons deeply suspicious. They think Hammond is positioning himself for a possible future leadership bid. When I interviewed him, he laughed at the idea that he could be a contender, and said he would be “a bit long in the tooth” by the time there was a vacancy. In other words, he did not rule the idea out.

But although the Cameroons are more liberal than Hammond, they share his problem of finding it very difficult to connect with the wider public. Like Hammond, Cameron is a tremendously self-controlled and professional politician, who can be relied on to stay calm in a crisis and do the prudent thing.

When it comes to reaching out to millions of people who detest politicians, this self-control becomes a severe limitation. Fallible leaders who get involved in messy scandals – I mean someone like Bill Clinton – can seem more humane, and therefore more electable, than either Hammond or Cameron. If the Tories have a Clinton, he is Boris Johnson.

By Andrew Gimson

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Iain Dale: Should would-be Tory MPs have to declare their religious beliefs? Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of chairing the Tonbridge & Malling Open Primary… There was one question from the audience which made me feel slightly uncomfortable, and it concerned religion. Each candidate was asked if they had any religious beliefs. Now on the face of it you could say that people are entitled to know about a candidate’s religious beliefs, but if you are not allowed to ask a candidate about their sexuality, why should you be able to test their religious convictions? http://bit.ly/1beGv9u

Nida Broughton: Why deciding to build more houses is so hard “Homeownership has gone from 23 per cent of households in 1918 to around two-thirds today. Meeting the interests of homeowners – and the aspirations of those who want to get on the housing ladder – does not necessarily coincide with policies to increase housing supply. Surveys show that homeowners are more likely to be anti-development.  This creates a dynamic of pressure to constrain supply, with the result that prices go up, and ever more people want to get on the housing ladder as housing becomes not just somewhere to live, but an asset that can be relied on.” http://bit.ly/1c4bnv4

Paul Goodman: Cameron’s 2014 nightmare “Whether or not there is an old-fashioned NHS crisis this winter, a spectre is haunting Downing Street – namely, a horror film first six months for David Cameron in 2014, as follows. Late December and early January see an NHS national drama, complete with ambulances parked outside A & Es, closed wards, shroud-waving doctors, nurses, ancillary staff – and so on.  Late January and early February are dominated by media reports – whether exaggerated or not – of a far bigger influx of Romanians and Bulgarians than expected.” http://bit.ly/1awvQvE

Stephan Shakespeare: Is it Euro-scepticism, or anti-establishment frustration, that is fuelling UKIP? “If eurosceptic activists in a mainstream party mistake Europe’s true level of priority as an issue in voters’ minds, they could actually increase their image of being out-of-touch even when they think they are being most in tune with popular thought. The time to go strong on Europe is not at the general election, nor even at the European election (which for most voters will not really be about EU policy), but whenever there is a referendum.” http://bit.ly/1cPG2xd

Peter Franklin: Hinkley Point C is a truly terrible deal for the taxpayer “The problem with nuclear power is that the more we learn about it the more expensive it gets. There is some hope that a new generation of nuclear power stations will make progress on both cost and safety. Hinkley Point, however, represents a last hurrah for the old generation. Our Government has purchased an end-of-the-line product at a premium price.” http://bit.ly/1dMtLKV

By Andrew Gimson

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