Philip Hammond: The rise of the quiet man

Unquestionably competent, but “a cold fish”, Philip Hammond is emerging as an unlikely contender in the race to become the next Tory leader.

Philip Hammond. Illustration: Dan Murrell/NS

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The runners and riders for the Conservative leadership are gathering in the paddock. Although the race may not be run for several years, the jockeys feel they have to show they have the right stuff to win.

Here comes Theresa May, plucky woman rider in what is still a male-dominated sport. She is mounted on Home Office, a notoriously difficult nag (“unfit for purpose”, as the former Labour home secretary John Reid once observed), which has thrown most of its riders over the years. Michael Gove, riding Education, trots ostentatiously round the paddock in a bright shade of blue while denying he has the slightest interest in the race. And, to general astonishment, Jeremy Hunt can be seen saddling up, despite recently having suffered a crashing fall that ought to have ended his career.

But who is the latest rider to join them? His colours are unknown: he is clad in an instantly forgettable shade of grey. He is so disciplined that he might be entering a dressage event rather than a steeplechase. The onlookers consult their programmes and discover he is called Philip Hammond. Nobody seems to know anything about him, except that he is Secretary of State for Defence.

Hammond is a loyal and undemonstrative minister, the kind who has risen to cabinet level by demonstrating self-effacing efficiency in every role he has ever been given. He might be described as a Tory version of Alistair Darling, the magnificently competent, unexcitable and uninspiring Labour Party loyalist who held five different cabinet posts before springing to national prominence as chancellor of the exchequer.

 Except that No 10 thinks that Hammond has become less loyal. According to the Spectator, “It is hard to overstate how angry some of Cameron’s confidants are with Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary. They feel that his recent pronouncements on the EU, gay marriage and the need for welfare cuts are all designed to position him as a potential answer to the question, ‘If not Cameron, who?’” The Financial Timeshas heard similar expressions of discontent: it says Downing Street detects “a pattern of behaviour” from Hammond which suggests he “might even quit rather than implement further cuts to the armed forces”, and might “set himself up as leader of the Tory right”.

What has Hammond done to be briefed against with such venom? On defence spending, he warned at the beginning of March that “we won’t be able to make further cuts without eroding military capability”. He urged that savings be found by looking “broadly across government”, and referred to a “body of opinion within cabinet who believes [sic] that we have to look at the welfare budget again”.

On Europe, Hammond said on 12 May: “If the choice is between an EU exactly as it is today and not being a part of that then I have to say I’m on the side of the argument that Michael Gove has put forward.” This looked much like an attempt to keep up with Gove, who earlier the same day had declared that if a referendum on Britain’s EU membership were to be held now, he would vote to leave.

On same-sex marriage, Hammond said when he appeared on BBC1’s Question Time on 16 May: “This change does redefine marriage. For millions and millions of people who are married, the meaning of marriage changes. There is a real sense of anger among many people who are married that the government, any government, thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage.” Hammond is instinctively stern and old-fashioned on questions to do with sex. In case he had failed to make himself clear, he added: “There was no huge demand for this and we didn’t need to spend a lot of parliamentary time and upset vast numbers of people to do this. I have just never felt that this is what we should be focusing on . . .”

One can see why No 10 was enraged. In each case, Hammond was expressing the deepest convictions of Conservative activists and defying the Lib Dem-friendly line taken by David Cameron. The Defence Secretary’s defenders say he was just being honest: “He is not one to dissemble.” They contend that he gets on well with activists and has them “eating out of his hand” at party conferences because he is a genuine Tory.

Hammond, the son of a civil engineer, was born in Epping, Essex, on 4 December 1955. He was educated at Shenfield School, a comprehensive in Brentwood, and has described how he felt aged 14: “I remember the day after the general election [of 1970] when Harold Wilson had lost – I remember quite clearly cycling from my house in Hutton along Long Ridings and feeling what a relief to live in a country with a Tory government again.”

Richard Madeley, a classmate who later became a television presenter, has recalled another side to Hammond. “Yes, was at school with Phil Hammond – a Goth back then,” he tweeted. “Used to arrive in class in leather trench-coat with the Guardian under his arm.” A school photograph exists of Hammond slouching with his tie askew and top button undone. Yet being a Goth and reading the Guardian are not necessarily incompatible with supporting Edward Heath, who was prime minister at the time.

In 1974 Hammond went up to University College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Colin Moynihan, who, like him, read philosophy, politics and economics. The two became friends and when Moynihan, an Olympic coxswain who was elected a Tory MP in 1983, was minister for sport in the late 1980s, Hammond acted as an unpaid political assistant to him.

In his own biography that he later wrote for the Conservative Party, Hammond recorded that he started at Oxford “on the very day that the Labour government, which ended in disaster in 1979, was elected. He watched, first as a student of politics, and then as a new employee in a small pharmaceutical company, as economic disaster engulfed Britain.”

For a man not given to hyperbole, Hammond is surprisingly fond of apocalyptic language. In a recent discussion of the banking crisis he declared that “the day of reckoning has come”, adding in a prosaic tone, “and now we are adjusting”. Likewise, his reference to the “disaster” that “engulfed” the country in the late 1970s is followed by a calmer passage: “Philip’s political convictions were formed against this backdrop and he strongly believes that the first responsibility of government is to promote economic stability, sound money and prudent public finances.”

Hammond emerges as a voice of sanity in a world gone mad. For nearly 20 years before entering the Commons, he pursued a successful business career, from which he made a substantial amount of money. His interests included medical equipment and property, and he is one of the few members of the cabinet with commercial experience.

In 1994, he contested a London by-election and in 1997 he was elected MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, in Surrey. His first speech in the Commons indicated that he could, when he wished, strike a drily humorous note: “A number of my honourable friends who are new members have already made their maiden speeches. My tardiness owes something to Disraeli’s advice to a new member: ‘It is better that they wonder why you do not speak than that they wonder why you do.’” As is conventional, he devoted parts of his speech to his seat: “The constituency straddles the M25 and the M3; indeed, in those road atlases that tend to exaggerate the width of roads my constituency appears to contain little other than the intersection of those two motorways.” Less conventionally, Hammond then plunged into a convincing, if dry, analysis of the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill. Already he was showing an appetite for work that others might find too demanding and dull.

Hammond was and is unclubbable; he works very hard, is always on top of his brief, is known as “a safe pair of hands”, and is not seen in the tearoom or the smoking room. When someone suggested having a drink with him, he replied in a puzzled tone: “Why?” In 2010 he expected to become chief secretary to the Treasury, a post for which he had spent three years preparing, and for which his grasp of detail made him ideally suited, but because of a need to balance the coalition he became transport secretary instead. It was a severe disappointment. He showed grip, however, and in October 2011, when Liam Fox was forced to resign from Defence, Cameron turned to Hammond to fill the gap. He is one of very few secretaries of state who have managed to get on top of that department.

His wife, Susan, whom he married in 1991 and with whom he has three children, is described by another MP’s wife as “glamorous and fun, with a good sense of humour – she’s a good egg and there are very few wives who are prepared to get stuck in and do things”. Among the things Susie Hammond has done is to chair the Parliamentary Palace of Varieties in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support, an annual charity dinner at which peers and MPs perform. She has also organised “other half parties” for MPs’ partners.

Few people pretend to know Hammond well. Some describe him as a cold fish. But a Conservative peer says: “I know little of Mr Hammond but he has the steadiness which Tories used to take for granted in their leading figures but rarely find today. Cameroon annoyance is surely a source of strength to him. His interests would never be served by firm alliance with any group or tendency in the party. Impregnable competence and astute grasp of whatever policies are needed at any particular time in the national interest would seem to be his guarantee of longevity in the Tory high command. He is in contemporary form a fine traditional Tory figure.”

It is easy to imagine Hammond as a chancellor devoted to sound money: much harder to imagine him as prime minister. But that depends on what kind of prime minister is wanted. If we are in a crisis, and need a calm head attached to a safe pair of hands, the cry might yet go up to send for Hammond.

Andrew Gimson is a contributing editor to ConservativeHome