Philip Hammond, the newly appointed Foreign Secretary. Photo: Getty
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From the Castlereagh-Canning era to Philip Hammond

Philip Hammond's appointment as Foreign Secretary is a triumph for capable functionaries and Little Englanders.

If you think that politics can be brutal now, it is worth remembering that there was once a time when feuding cabinet ministers were wont to draw pistols on each other. After their duel of 1809, both Lord Castlereagh and George Canning (who took a bullet in the thigh) were able to recover their reputation. Both, indeed, went on to become dominant figures in 19th-century British foreign policy. They bequeathed a set of organising principles that, though contested, were traceable through their pre-eminent Victorian and Edwardian successors – Palmerston, Aberdeen, Granville, Salisbury and Sir Edward Grey – and even through to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Despite Britain’s diminished international status after 1945 there was seldom a shortage of “big beasts” to pick up the mantle at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). It was Thatcher’s foreign secretaries Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd who were often her greatest sources of frustration, partly because of her perception that they were too inclined to side with the cautious mandarins in King Charles Street.

In the Blair era, too, Robin Cook brought a distinctive approach in the form of his “ethical foreign policy”. And for all the crises and debacles of the past 200 years, a sense of continuity and history still runs through the FCO more than any other ministry. Jack Straw, who held the reins from 2001 to 2006, has spoken of the lessons of the Castlereagh-Canning era. William Hague is an accomplished biographer of William Pitt (mentor to both Castlereagh and Canning) and William Wilberforce, the politician and anti-slavery campaigner.

Set against this illustrious and tempestuous past, the appointment of Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary has left many observers cold. Yet there is a certain rationale to it. Hammond performed solidly as defence secretary, a post that has long been a poisoned chalice. He has a better relationship with the armed forces than some of his recent predecessors – a not inconsiderable achievement, given the extent of the defence cuts over which he has presided. More importantly, he also managed to get these cuts through parliament while averting a Tory rebellion. He had the advantage that potential rebels were pulled two ways – between those inclined towards a Liam Fox-style emphasis on strong defence and a new breed with a more Little Englander disposition.

However, it is also easy to foresee friction between the minister and his new department. Hammond is a cold-eyed cost-cutter. Before the reshuffle, Cameron was already facing a revolt over the foreign aid budget, much valued by the establishment but a long-standing target of the Tory right. That the Foreign Secretary is on record saying he would vote to leave the EU unless substantial powers are returned to Britain brings him into sharp conflict with Foreign Office orthodoxy.

One could also argue that Hammond’s elevation represents something else – the triumph of the tinkerer over the thinker. He brings with him no clear philosophy of Britain’s place in the world, nor any proven depth of interest in foreign affairs. Hague’s tenure, though not without its critics, brought a reinvestment in the Foreign Office as an institution. Under the “Diplomatic Excellence” initiative, he emphasised the importance of restoring language training and a sense of historical and institutional memory. He was unquestionably a big beast.

That Liam Fox reportedly turned down a subordinate role as a minister of state under Hammond tells its own story. There is no declaration of intent or change of direction here – no new ethos. What we have is the triumph of the capable functionary.

Cameron has previously flirted with a bigger role in the international arena – gymnastically over Libya and abortively over Syria last summer. But a combination of defeat in the Syria vote, the effects of America’s lurch towards retrenchment and his inability to get anywhere near the steering wheel at the EU has blunted those ambitions.

Beyond the Tory reshuffle, one wonders who and where are today’s heavyweights. Potentially influential voices on the Labour benches seem muted by fear of the Chilcot report. On the Tory side, who were the alternatives to Hammond? To revisit the old cliché about Britain “punching above her weight” – and to borrow from the management-speak so popular in Whitehall – is the best we can hope for a boxer “fit for purpose” within the division? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.