Michael Gove was asked during a dinner with journalists at last year's Party conference whether he would vote to leave the EU were an In/Out referendum held now. He replied that he would. That declaration can be read in two ways. First, as a straightforward declaration of what he thinks. Second, as evidence of an ambition to lead the Conservatives. I read it as the first, since the Education Secretary has the intellectual self-confidence to leap before he looks – though that doesn't mean that he has renounced all worldly ambition. None the less, his words set tigers among the pigeons at the time, just as their repetition did yesterday.
Philip Hammond offered much the same view yesterday, and that he did so is well worth noting – especially since he has not offered it so obviously before (if ever): Paul Waugh suggested that the Defence Secretary hardened up his position during the day in response to Michael Gove's. But whether this is so or not, his words were a reminder that Hammond's quiet march is well worth clocking. Earlier this year, he said publicly that the welfare budget should be cut instead of his own. Obviously, it's not at all unusual for Cabinet Ministers to defend their budgets. But it is so for them to do so publicly, and doubly so for them to identify someone else's as a substitute.
Indeed, the incident was so remarkable as to provoke suggestions that George Osborne, who would like to see the rise in Iain Duncan Smith's budget scaled back further, had put Hammond up to it. (The Work and Pensions Secretary himself is not averse to such a course, either: it is the Liberal Democrats who are.) What's certain is that the Defence Secretary has a finely-honed sense of when to advance his credentials as a right-of-party-centre Conservative. He is opposed to same-sex marriage, and has suggested that the bill to bring it about, about which David Burrowes writes on this site today, is a waste of Parliamentary time.
He made the same point about Lords Reform which, unlike the same-sex marriage bill, was a central plank of the Government's programme. Hammond's progress is well worth keeping an eye on. James Forsyth identified him as one of an "Inner Cabinet" of seven senior Ministers convened by David Cameron from time to time, and Downing Street will certainly be wary of one of the few senior Tories with real business experience, and within whom the fire of ambition is clearly not spent. Although he is implementing a severe spending scaleback at Defence, he is popular with activists – coming in fourth in our last monthly Cabinet ranking survey.
It will doubtless be claimed that Hammond is grey and flavourless. The same was once said of another rising Conservative politician. His name was John Major.