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16 October 2017

Can you be a good minister and a Brexiteer?

That's the real question underpinning the row over Philip Hammond. 

By Stephen Bush

Not so long ago, I went for lunch with a German diplomat who was very angry about the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed foreign secretary.

With vital talks about the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom looming, what on earth was Downing Street thinking appointing such a vocal Eurosceptic to the role? Didn’t they understand the signal it sent, the goodwill unnecessarily squandered?

As for the Americans, looking ahead to the last days of the Obama administration and the looming prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency, they too were deeply uneasy about the whole thing. How on earth, they concluded, could they be expected to work with Philip Hammond?

It’s easy to forget now that he has moved from King Charles Street to the Treasury, but when Hammond arrived at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he was widely seen as an impeccable Eurosceptic. In May 2013, Hammond broke ranks to agree with Michael Gove, then education secretary, that Britain was better off out.

Shortly after his appointment he doubled down, saying: “If there is no change at all in the way Europe is governed, no change in the balance of competences between the nation states and the European Union, no resolution of the challenge of how the eurozone can succeed and co-exist with the non-eurozone, that is not a Europe that can work for Britain in the future. So there must be change, there must be renegotiation.”

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Writing in the Spectator, James Forsyth hailed him as “a very Eurosceptic Foreign Secretary”, whose appointment was “a major challenge to Foreign Office orthodoxy”.

Life, as they say, comes at you fast. Now Hammond is Public Enemy Number One as far as the Brexit press and Leave-supporting MPs are concerned, for what they see as his refusal to see the upside of Brexit and his foot-dragging as far as planning for a “no deal” exit is concerned.

The rise and fall of Philip Hammond is one of politics’ most engaging Rorschach tests: you can see what you want in it. Taken one way, Hammond is the story of why Brexit happened writ large: a large chunk of the Conservative party was willing to contribute to the cultural lean towards Brexit that meant that Leave would always have started in a stronger position than Remain, and his great conversion was only because his career happened to coincide with the moment when Conservative MPs had to take a position on the EU based on national self-interest, not internal advantage.

Taken another way, Hammond was sincerely Eurosceptic before he arrived at the Foreign Office but his later career proves that, as one pro-Remain minister put it to me, “Brexit is something Tories believe in before we grow up”. Or it is proof of the lingering power of the Establishment to bend ministers to its will.

Who’s right? Well, you pays your money and you makes your choice. It is worth noting that civil servants at the Ministry of Defence and officials at the Foreign Office tended to like Hammond because they felt he took the brief seriously and worked hard. But the criticism that officials at the Treasury made of him when he was at the MoD was that he tended to speak with the voice of the department, who, they believed, thought that words like “value-for-money” were synonymous with “let the Channel become a Russian sea”. (Treasury civil servants now quite like Hammond.)

But equally, Hammond’s brief at the MoD was to see through significant cuts without major eruptions from retired generals in the pages of the Telegraph, a role he largely succeeded in doing.

That at the Foreign Office he effectively became a model foreign secretary, and is now a Chancellor who comes close to being Treasury orthodoxy, can be taken either as evidence he takes his job seriously or is easily captured by his department.

Even ministers who are not prone to departmental capture do tend to change their views a tad once they are in office. Even the most committed of Leavers tend to have the same attitude towards a hard Brexit as they do towards austerity: they are for it in practice, but against it in their own constituencies or departments.

Michael Gove, the man being talked up as a potential Hammond replacement, is a case in point. Since Theresa May brought him back in from the cold as Environment Secretary, he has been quietly radical, doing largely positive things on animal cruelty and the green agenda – but on Brexit, he has effectively been one of the cabinet voices arguing for it to happen, but not to farmers, please and thank you. He is one of the Brexiteers who has been advocating that a future trade deal with the United States ensure chlorine-washed chicken and similar foods cannot be sold in the United Kingdom. (I’ve written in more detail about the political and economic trade-offs around food and trade here.)

If, as many Leavers want, he ends up replacing Hammond, much will hinge on which Gove turns up: the anarchic education secretary, or the Brexit Nimby from Defra.

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