In the later years of her Premiership, Margaret Thatcher was often reduced to wry bewilderment by her Cabinet colleagues' ingenuity in getting themselves, and her, into trouble. After the Liam Fox affair, David Cameron will understand how she felt. As soon as Dr Fox behaved honourably and fell on his sword, there was an outbreak of exasperated sympathy for the poor fellow. But the exasperation is palpable. Most of the comments which I have heard could easily be summarised: "What the hell did he think he was doing?"
Now for a very different minister. Any Cabinet should have a range of strong but different characters. In purely personality terms, it is hard to imagine a greater contrast than the one betweem Liam Fox and Philip Hammond. In part, Dr Fox behaved as he did because he could not cope with disappointment. The first blow was his failure to become Party Leader in 2005. He then decided that he ought to be Foreign Secretary. David Cameron and William Hague had other ideas. No Tory should ever regard Defence as a mere fobbing-off post, but Liam Fox often gave the impression that his feet were less than firmly anchored beneath his desk. If he was denied the Foreign Office, he would try to run his own foreign policy. That cannot be allowed. Over the past seventeen months, Dr Fox has often given the impression that he was an accident waiting to happen. Now it has.
Philip Hammond also had grounds for disappointment. In Opposition, he was Shadow Chief Secretary. Keen to do the job in government, he was ready to play a big innings. Then came the coalition. He was displaced for David Laws, who did have City experience. Then Mr Laws was peccadilloed out of office. His successor was Danny Alexander, a red-haired Teuchter who was almost as young as he looked and who had experience, as the spokesman for the Tomintoul Tree-Huggers' Trust, or somesuch. Mr Alexander must have been as suprised as anyone to find himself in such a crucial role. After his appointment, lots of Tories were full of foreboding. It would be astonishing if Philip Hammond were not among them.
The foreboding was unnecessary. Danny Alexander has performed outstandingly. Normally, Chief Secretaries only serve for half a Parliament. By then, their gruelling routine of meetings all day and papers all night will have earned them a promotion, and a respite. But I have bad news for Danny Alexander. There are rumours that he will stay at his post. Why substitute a player who has got his eye in so well?
In the meantime, denied the job he expected, wanted and had prepared for, Philip Hammond did exactly what his friends would have predicted. He got stuck into the job he was given. Transport never ranks high in the Cabinet order of precedence and is often regarded as a first post for a promising youngster. Few Ministers of Transport make much impact. Leslie Hore-Belisha, Ernie Marples, Barbara Castle: that is about it. Yet it is important. On a daily basis, transport effects the lives of everyone in this country. It also generates unrealistic expectations. Most people know what they want: fast, clear roads to drive on, but no road-building to disrupt the environment; easy access to city centres without allowing traffic to destroy our towns' historic charm: good, cheap transport infrastrucure and low taxes. The Transport Secretary has a trickier in-tray than many of his higher-ranked colleagues. He also knows that if he ever attracts publicity, it will almost certainly mean that something has gone wrong. Philip Hammond coped with all of that, and appeared to do so effortlessly (a misleading impression, but one which builds confidence).
In opposition, flashy types often prosper because they are good at carrying the fight to the enemy. In government, sensible prime Ministers quickly come to recognise the importance of a safe pair of hands: a minister who can be relied on to run his department smoothly and avoid debilitating controversies. Jack Straw was one such. So is Philip Hammond. His standing in the innermost circles is far higher than his public reputation. If George Osborne were run over tomorrow – God forbid, and should it happen, blame the Minister of Transport – Philip Hammond would be the obvious successor.
Let us hope that nothing untoward occurs so that he serves at Defence for many years. That Department is in urgent need of a leader. It has not had one since George Robertson went to Nato. John Reid was shaping well at the wicket – for about five minutes, after which he was moved. No Minister ever held so many posts for such a short period: further evidence that Tony Blair did not know how to run a government. John Hutton also showed promise, until he deserted his post because he could not stand working for Gordon Brown. One can understand how he felt, but the men fighting in Afghanistan cannot abandon their posts. So neither should their Ministers. (Or could it be that working for Gordon Brown was worse than facing the Taleban? Perhaps we should wait to see how many Brown Ministers end up with post-traumatic stress disorder.)
Mr Hammond has two tasks. The first is to grip the detail. What is the Department doing, and why? How big is the financial mess? How much wastage is there in the procurement process? Do we have the capabilities to match our commitments? Tony Blair used to behave like a schoolboy pressing his nose against the windows of Hamley's, who wanted everything in the shop but had run out of pocket-money. It is not clear whether David Cameron is immune from similar outbreaks of unreality. High-intensity warfare is expensive. Labour left the defence budget in chaos and deserve unceasing castigation. But there will still have to be a costly cure.
That is where Philip Hammond's hard-minded business acumen will be indispensable. But there is another task. The Defence Secretary will quickly realise that all his activities are dependent on a daily miracle. It is called recruitment.
A generation or so ago, that was simpler, because life was harder. Officer recruitment could draw on an ethos of service and on squirearchical stoicism, which had already been toughened up in an old-fashioned public school. As for the men, they might have been escaping a future of hard labour on a farm, down a pit, or in a mill. They would also have been escaping poor households. Three meals a day, a bed to himself even if it was in a barracks, the prospect of foreign travel – and a romantic vocation; it is easy to see the attraction of the Queen's shilling.
Today, everything is so different. Life is softer and more selfish. The young are much less prepared for the rigours of military servive. Yet they volunteer, bless them: they still volunteer. The calibre of potential officer cadets is is high as ever. Even in these straitened times, those young men could find better-paid and much more comfortable employment. Yet they choose to serve their Queen and their Country. They make a clear-eyed commitment, to sacrifice, discipline and danger (one reason why a self-indulgent Defence Secretary could not remain in office).
The future officers are intellectually prepared for the ardours which they are about to experience at Sandhurst. That will not be true of many of the men, heedlessly, blithely strolling towards the horrors of basic training. Consider a youth who is the terror of his neighbourhood, who has become well-known to the police, though without quite managing to acquire enough of a criminal record to debar him from the step that he is about to take. Briefly in the ascendant, his good Angel steers him towards the army. He thinks that it might be a bit of a lark. Lark: two weeks later, he has experienced more hardship than he thought possible. He does not believe that anyone has ever been put through such misery. At moments, he has been reduced to whimpering, to the vast amusement of his Sergeant, the most sadistic bastard in the history of human cruelty. He must have been mad to join up.
A few weeks after that, he has recovered his belief in his own sanity. He has bonded with his mates. Together, they have learned to cope, and more than cope. Hard inside and smart outside, the new recruit is coming to believe that "C" squad of "B" platoon of "A" company of the 1st Blankshires is the finest military formation that there has ever been. Alexander's Phalanxes, Caesar's Legions, Napoleon's Old Guard, Guderian's Panzers: bring 'em on. He and his muckers will see them off. And the Sarge is not so bad when you get to know him.
There are two gripping books which everybody should read: "Desperate Glory" by Sam Kiley and "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" by Patrick Hennessy, both about recent operations and contemporary soldiering (if Philip Hammond has not read them, he should rectify that immediately). They are an antidote and an inspiration. At times, many of us are tempted to give way to despair about the state of the country. But despair cannot be an enduring verdict in a nation which can produce the fighting men whom those authors describe. Unlike some foreigners – no names, no pack drill – we British never overdo the exaltation of the military. We are often warlike but never militaristic. But in a dignified, understated, British way, the armed forces should be an unending source of national inspiration and national pride. It now falls to Mr Hammond to succour and sustain them. He must tell them how much there country values them. He must ensure that the message is broadcast back home as well, so that the miracle of recruitment will continue. He must also preserve the sacred brutality of basic training from the rat-bites of political correctness.
There is no more inspiring task in government, and Philip Hammond is a lucky man. But there is far more to him than luck. He deserved his promotion. Long may he continue to do so.