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Philip Hammond's stock has been quietly rising among ConservativeHome survery respondents. He came in fourth in May: only William Hague, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith were ahead of him.
I suspect he will find it difficult to keep his place during the months ahead. This morning's Times (£) helps to explain why. It reports that –
"As the Army shrinks over the next eight years from 102,000 to 82,000 men – its smallest in 200 years — four infantry battalions and two cavalry regiments will be lost through disbandments and amalgamations.
Ministry of Defence sources confirmed that the Gurkha regiments would escape the cuts — provoking anger elsewhere. The pain will instead fall on traditional recruiting grounds in the North of England and the Midlands."
In a speech today to the Royal United Services Institute, the Defence Secretay is expected to say: “A regular Army of 82,000 will have a different structure to one of 102,000. And some units inevitably will be lost or will merge.”
According to the Guardian, the army will shrink to its smallest size since the Boer War. This coming reduction of the army's manpower will provoke fury among many party activists, who believe that numbers must be kept up as a deterrent against threats known and unknown.
Bernard Jenkin has spoken for them forcefully on this site (see here and here). He was responding to my view that the army's size can be reduced if we stop committing our troops to major Iraq and Afghanistan-type wars – and that we should do so (see here and here).
If he doesn't know already, Mr Hammond is about to find out that Mr Jenkins's view is more widely held than mine, not just among party members but among Tory backbenchers too, a large number of whom have army experience (very few, by contrast, have served in the navy and air force).
The Defence Secretary is one of the few top Tory politicians with business experience, and an adroit operator: note how seamlessly he has voiced doubts about Lords reform and gay marriage – and support, in Cabinet, for an EU referendum (or so we read).
But he is essentially an austere Treasury type – he would surely have been Chief Secretary in a majority Conservative Goverment – and doesn't pretend otherwise. He has eschewed stunts with flak jackets and the like, stemmed leaks, and hunkered down to furthering Liam Fox's reforms.
Mr Hammond reminds me of the sort of old-fashioned bank manager – from the days when there were old-fashioned bank managers – who would politely refuse you a loan, explaining with a wintery smile that it's all for your own good.
To this dry figure falls the task of reconfiguring his Department, fighting for his budget (or at least being seen to) and pleasing the Treasury, all at the same time. And all at a time when a bloody spending review – and a longer-term debate about spending priorities – loom together.
Even a man of the Defence Secretary's talents will find this a hard circle to square. Real debate about the future of defence policy has been postponed for too long and it is poised to happen on Mr Hammond's watch.