What is the best course to take in an interview if your name has been touted as a future Conservative leader – and you might not be averse to the prospect? Phillip Hammond provides a masterclass of how to navigate such choppy waters in his interview with Paul Waugh in this week's House magazine.
- Deflate your prospects – but deny nothing. "Well I think they probably haven’t checked my birth certificate. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for that kind of thing. Look, I’ll be nearly 60 by the time of the next election.”
- Attack the LibDems: it never does any harm. “I think it’s people who want to cut spending on the deterrent and really
don’t care about maintaining our deterrent capability. That’s not
naivety, that’s recklessness with Britain’s national security.”
- If asked about your state school education, remind readers that you're not a posh boy (and know the price of milk). "I could give you, if you wanted, a
list of very expensive public schools that don’t provide a very good
- If portrayed as a Guardian reader, threaten to sue. "The scruffy hair, the tie undone, I’ll accept all of that… But what I absolutely will
not accept is the Guardian under my arm. Never in a million years.
Actually, I went through a phase of being an FT reader at school.”
But is the Defence Secretary really "on manoeuvres"? An important difference between Hammond and those others mentioned in the same breath as the leadership – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Theresa May – is that there is no suggestion, no sign of a Hammond team: of an operation that works on his behalf. (Up to a point, this is also true of the Education Secretary.)
His public demand for a further scaleback in welfare spending can be seen simply as a Minister defending his Department. And his following in Gove's footsteps on how he'd vote in an In/Out EU referendum were one held today could be read as a man speaking his mind – as could his vocal criticism of Downing Street over same-sex marriage.
None the less, the accumulation of events is suggestive. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander: having written earlier this morning that it's too early to take a firm view about Boris, it follows that it's too early to take a view on anyone else. And Hammond has work to do: keeping our armed forces out of the Syrian swamp, for a start.