By Matthew Barrett
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Philip Hammond's interview in the Sunday Times (£) this morning covers a number of different issues, the most notable of which is that the Defence Secretary comes out against gay marriage and Lords reform taking up time in the legislative timetable. I've pulled out four topics below.
Balancing the MoD's books
Firstly, following the understandable opposition to the prospect of losing some historical regiment names in Scotland (which Hammond responds to: "None of that is remotely true. We hugely value the regimental system, and nobody, as far as I know, is suggesting dismantling it."), Hammond stresses the light at the end of the budgetry tunnel – the MoD's books are nearly balanced. In remarks given fully in a separate Sunday Times story, Hammond says:
"“In the next few days we will be in a position to make the grand announcement that I’ve balanced the books,” Hammond said. “In terms of reducing the size of the civil service, the army and the air force, we shouldn’t have to do any more over and above what we’ve already announced.” … “For the first time in the defence budget we’ve got a reserve in each year, which means that if something comes up we’ll be able to manage it, drawing on our own reserve rather than having to cancel or postpone equipment,” he said."
Gay marriage and Lords reform
In light of the local election results, Hammond rejects the push for legislation to allow gay marriage or reform of the House of Lords. He tells the Sunday Times that at present, the Lords "works rather well", and that voters are "probably largely indifferent" to any reform. He also fears gay marriage legislation will not be "do-able", or "deliverable". These remarks are notable because Hammond – neither a leadership loyalist, nor a firebrand of the right – is the first Cabinet minister to come out in opposition to the Coalition's marriage plans:
"“We’ve got to be clear that we focus not just on the things that are important, but on the things that are do-able, the things that are deliverable, and the things that chime with ordinary people’s sense of what the priorities are,” he says. He believes gay marriage is too controversial for the government to tackle right now, suggesting it would be “difficult to push through”, “use up a lot of political capital” and “a lot of legislative time as well”."
Hammond also attacks the Government's inability to do anything about human rights legislation, because of the Liberal Democrats' willingness to block any reform:
"The whole agenda about repatriating human rights — it’s something I’m personally very interested in. It’s something we clearly set out at the last election — not abolishing human rights, but a sensible and UK-based approach to human rights, where ‘human rights’ doesn’t become a catch-all phrase that allows the evil and the ne’er-do-wells to cock a snook at the system. That’s what we’ve seen — terrorists whose views on us, and whose actions in the past are completely unacceptable, being able to play the system. [But] it’s not going to happen during the coalition. We have to respect the fact that our coalition partners feel very strongly the other way"
Finally, following the last few months of belligerent rhetoric from the Argentine government Hammond has a pretty blunt assessment of that country's ability to re-invade las Malvinas the Falklands:
"“The truth is, there isn’t anybody who is either capable of, or has shown the slightest intention of, invading the Falklands,” he says confidently. “Argentina has a constitution that explicitly says it won’t use force to regain the Malvinas. That’s what the constitution says, so it would be unconstitutional in Argentine domestic terms, and secondly, it has not replaced any of its aircraft since the last Falklands war, so it doesn’t have the military capability of doing it . . . It’s not causing me any lack of sleep.”"
James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph called him "a business brain to reshape our Forces" on Tuesday. The Secretary of State for Defence should be congratulated for quietly, but effectively, balancing the Defence budget.
Update 10.15am Philip Hammond appeared on the Andrew Marr show this morning, expanding on his gay marriage comments:
“Clearly it’s not the number one priority. If you stop people in the street and ask them what their concerns are, they’ll talk to you about jobs and economic growth, they’ll talk to you about the level of the wages they’re earning, wanting to see real growth in wages again. They’ll talk about rising prices, they’ll talk about crime, they’ll talk about immigration. There is no legislation in the Queen’s Speech; there’s a consultation going on, and we should look at, listen to what people are saying in response to that consultation. But I think the government has got to show over the next couple of years that it is focused on the things that matter to the people in this country – not just the short-term things but the long-term things as well; the reform of our education system, changing the welfare system – which is like turning around a supertanker – changing the welfare system so that work always pays, and people have an incentive to work. These are things that will affect long-term competitiveness of this country, and thus the long-term prosperity of our people.”