Philip Hammond rejects with indignation the charge that he is “stifling” the defence debate by ordering senior officers not to talk to politicians and journalists.

In an interview with ConservativeHome, the Defence Secretary dismissed the charge that he has enforced a secretive culture within his department which leaves people with an interest in defence unable to find out what is going on.

James Arbuthnot, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, declares in the new edition of The House Magazine: “Philip Hammond has really clamped down on discussions between politicians and journalists, on the one hand, and the military and Ministry of Defence on the other hand. I think that is a mistake.”

Arbuthnot, a former defence minister who is Conservative MP for North-East Hampshire, has also told the Guardian that suppression of information in the MoD has “got substantially worse” since the summer of 2012, when he first attacked Hammond for being secretive.

ConHome asked Hammond: “Why is Arbuthnot so cross with you? I saw the other day he was accusing you of stifling debate.”

Hammond: “Well quite a lot of people seem to be quite cross about stifled debate.”

ConHome: “What do they mean?”

Hammond: “Well what they mean is they would like senior officers to have cosy little lunches or breakfasts or dinners with them, telling them all sorts of tales out of school. As if somehow the military are different from other parts of the public sector, where the accepted discipline is that we have our disagreements internally, we reach an agreed public position, and then we all as senior representatives of the department present that position.”

Hammond insists that within the department, senior officers are free to speak out: “What we’ve got, post the Levene reforms here, is a management structure that gives the military a very powerful say in the way things are run. We have a body called the Armed Forces Committee which sits at the very top of the departmental structure, from which the Chief of Defence Staff brings the military’s view direct to the Defence Board and to the Permanent Secretary and to myself. So it’s not a question of the military’s voice being stifled. The military is a formative voice in the making of the department’s policy.”

For Hammond, the moment when everyone has to start saying the same thing is once policy has been made: “Once we’ve made our policy we all have to stand by it. That’s what collective responsibility is all about. In particular, we have moved on decisively from the days when the three services privately ran their own agendas and went around briefing people. And that’s really what some of the journalists who’ve written about this object to.”

Hammond is determined not to get personal about this problem: that is not his style. He is much happier talking in generalities, often expressed with soporific blandness. But he says that what writers on defence “hanker after” is a world in which whatever the department’s policy may be, a journalist “could sit down with senior naval officers who would tell him it was wrong, and there was a policy in favour of the Navy which would be much more in the national interest”, and then the journalist “could go and dine with the Chief of the Air Staff who would also tell him it was wrong, because there should be a policy much more in the air force interest”.

Hammond is convinced that the new system is better: “What the Chiefs will tell you now, and they genuinely will tell you this, and we’re not muzzling them, we’re very happy for them to talk to journalists, indeed some of them have been doing so over the last few weeks, quite prominently, but not privately. Not unattributable one-to-one briefings over dinner. These are interviews which will be published and attributable to them. No one has any problem with that. What they will tell you is that the senior levels of all three services now understand that the key to delivering military effect is joint effect. The enablers that make military power deliverable are joint: the intelligence, the surveillance, the reconnaissance, the communications capability, the command and control… we’re more than happy, indeed we’re very keen, to have people in uniform out delivering the message for defence. But it has to be defence’s message, not a single service message. And just as I do, they have to deliver the department’s agreed agenda, not their own private agendas that they put up for discussion and didn’t win the argument. And what we don’t do, none of us, is private, one-to-one, off-the-record briefings. It’s just not the way things should be done. I don’t do one-to-one unattributable lunches or dinners with journalists, and nor should the service chiefs.”

To declare war on lunch is an act of reckless bravery. But Hammond is so convinced of the rightness of what he is doing that he perhaps does not realise how daring his behaviour seems to some of us.

My impression is that Hammond is not himself a great luncher. At the age of 57, he looks too lean to have devoted much of his time to browsing and sluicing. Some months ago, when I wrote a profile of him, I came across no one who had lunched with him, and only one person who had suggested having a drink with him, to which he replied in a puzzled tone: “Why?”

It is also true that lunch is a declining institution, and most journalists nowadays have neither the time nor the expenses to feed themselves properly.

But for a description of how things ought to be done, we can turn to the work of Sir Max Hastings, a distinguished military historian as well as journalist. In a recent piece for the Daily Mail, he recounted the obstacles now being placed in his path by Hammond:

“A couple of months ago, I was due to meet a British general for a routine chat when I received an embarrassed email from him, saying that all such meetings must now be approved by the Defence Secretary’s office. This had been refused. I wrote first to Philip Hammond, and then to David Cameron, asking why they were seeking to kill the sort of private dialogue with the armed forces that I have had for more than 40 years. Both the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary wrote back, defending their gagging decision. They said that there has been far too much military leaking to the media, and they are determined that this must stop.”

Sir Max is contemptuous of the new policy:

“This sort of clumsy control-freakery derives in part, of course, from the fact that our leaders know that our professional soldiers are contemptuous of their antics on security policy generally, and Syria in particular. But attempts to silence those who know something about strategy and warfare are bound to fail, and only emphasise the Government’s cack-handedness.”

When one meets Hammond, he neither looks nor sounds cack-handed. He seems instead to possess a self-assurance springing from a belief in the infallible correctness of his decisions.

ConHome: “Do you regret being Defence Secretary at a moment when 800 years of ship-building in Portsmouth are coming to an end?”

Hammond: “No I can’t say I regret being the Defence Secretary at that moment because that would be an abdication of responsibility. It is the right decision. And once again, I have to say, as I’ve had to say on many other issues, I absolutely understand people’s attachment to our heritage and their pride in our history, and we shouldn’t give any of that up. But we have to be a forward-looking nation not a backward-looking nation, and I have to run the defence budget to deliver defence effect in the future, not to preserve regiments or shipyards just because they’ve been there for a long time in the past. And we move on. As a nation we move on.”

Hammond is a Tory pragmatist: “We’re proud of our achievements in the past, but the world we occupy today is very different from the one we occupied in the 1950s or the 1920s or the 19th century. It has to be so. We now have a much smaller Navy. It’s unlikely to get significantly bigger in the future. At least not sufficiently significantly bigger that it would require more than one centre of naval shipbuilding. And therefore the question is which of the naval shipbuilding locations in the UK is the most cost-effective place to build ships in the future. The unequivocal answer from the experts and indeed from the company that has to make its living from shipbuilding is that it’s the Clyde.”

ConHome: “I saw your appearance before the Defence Select Committee on Tuesday. They’re obviously pretty worried about recruitment. You think it’s going to be all right, do you?”

Hammond: “I do think it’s going to be all right. I don’t think it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got to find a net additional 10,000 reserve soldiers in a population of 63 million people. Simple maths tells me that must be deliverable. And we will flex what we have to flex to make it happen.”

ConHome: “Why are people so worried about it?”

Hammond: “Partly because we’ve had some teething difficulties with the IT platform which is supporting the new recruiting partnership with Capita…Partly because some people who have a completely different agenda about trying to protect legacy regular regiments are making a noise about this process, are encouraging doubts about the ability to build the Army Reserve, and are wrongly and I think quite damagingly suggesting that there is an alternative of retaining more regular Army units. The problem with their proposition is twofold. First of all, we can’t afford it. And I’m still astonished by how many people approach the defence debate from the point of view that we should have the discussion first and look at the resources afterwards. That isn’t a sensible way to approach any problem. And secondly their position is flawed because it takes no account of the restructuring of the Army. We are by and large recruiting reservists to fill roles that are in the support troops. It’s signallers, it’s artillerymen, it’s logisticians, it’s engineers, it’s REME, rather than light infantry. And the battalions that these misdirected individuals are seeking to protect are invariably light infantry battalions, which if we had to backfill for the reserves with regulars it would be specialist troops, it wouldn’t be light infantry.”

ConHome: “These ‘misdirected individuals’ must be very fed up with you.”

Hammond: “Oh indeed they are.”

ConHome: “You don’t look as if you’re excessively discomfited by this.”

Hammond: “No, not at all. I’ve said all I’ve got to say on things like 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Of course we understand that people who are associated with that battalion are dismayed that it has to merge. But the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ name survives as a single-battalion regiment, and we cannot shape the Army round the historic legacy rather than the future fighting force. I think that betrays a lack of commitment to the modern purpose of the Army.”

ConHome: “What you think the Conservative Party should campaign on in the next general election?”

Hammond: “It’s two things. It’s our record and it’s our vision. So first of all we should give the lie once and for all to the Lib Dem nonsense that everything the coalition has done is due to them. We should be very clear in claiming the credit for the achievements of the coalition as the major party in the coalition. Of course we couldn’t have done it without Lib Dem support, and they’re entitled to credit for that. But addressing the big challenges that faced the country has been something we should claim the credit for. We need to remind the country just how far we have come from the dark days of the financial crisis and the fiscal crisis we inherited. We need to explain how we are turning this into a recovery for all. Because while there is no doubt we are approaching a recovery, the figures are suggesting the economy is beginning to recover, people are of course still feeling hard pressed. We’ve got a lot of ground to make up because we lost a lot of economic output during the recession, and we need to show people how we will use the economic recovery to boost living standards in a sustainable way.”

Hammond proceeded to set out his vision: “We’ve got to kind of raise our eyes a bit and think about the vision of the future of Britain that a Conservative government would build. We’ve got to show people how we would use the platform of an economic recovery to deliver the kind of society that we want, which is a society that supports and encourages self-reliance, but is generous in its support for those who genuinely need help. It’s a society which is aspirational, which is socially mobile, where the winners are people who are prepared to work hard, play by the rules and make the effort to get on…We also have to be prepared to continually address the long-term structural challenges that our economy faces. We are still less productive by some margin than many of our international competitors, US, France, Germany. We’ve got an education system that is now in the process of reform, but we’ve still got some way to go in delivering the educational results that we need to be competitive in the future. And the reforms of our welfare system are critical…Moving from a dependency culture to a self-reliance culture, which I think is happening anyway, it is a generational change, so what we’re doing I think is working with the changing grain of society. But we do have to have that vision for what a Conservative Britain in 2020 at the end of the next government would look like.”

ConHome: “The polls do suggest the Conservatives still have a serious problem about being thought of as a party of the rich which is not on the side of ordinary people.”

Hammond: “Yeah, and of course we’ve never been a party of the rich, we’re a party of the aspirational, and that’s the message we need to get across.”

ConHome: “Were the party to need a new leader would you be…”

Hammond: “Sorry?”

ConHome: “Were the party to need a new leader at some point would you be a contender?”

Hammond: “No. I don’t think the party needs a new leader.”


Hammond: “As I’ve said before, the only circumstances in which it’s remotely conceivable that the party will need a new leader, I think probably I’ll be a bit long in the tooth by that stage.”

ConHome: “Hang on, Gladstone’s last administration he was about eighty, wasn’t he. And Churchill…”

Hammond: “Yes, but I think he’d had a go at it before then.”

ConHome: “How damaging was the same-sex marriage Bill?”

Hammond: “It was damaging because it created a perception that the leadership was in a different place to the core of the party’s active supporters. But I think the Tory party is nothing if not pragmatic and most people will now regard this as something that’s behind us, and we have to focus on the challenges ahead, not carping on disagreements that have happened in the past, and I think people will move on.”

ConHome: “Does that apply to you?”

Hammond: “Yes it does actually. I was definitely uncomfortable about civil partnership at first, but you know it happened, it became part of the furniture, just another feature of everyday life.”

ConHome: “A lot of people feel they don’t know very much about you as a person, in fact you rather guard your privacy. Is that the case?”

Hammond: “I think my position on the same-sex marriage thing probably sums up the kind of conservative that I am. I’m a small c conservative as well as a big C Conservative, and that means that I prefer my change to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and you know I got myself quite comfortable with the institution of civil partnership, but I was then quite shocked by the urge to move on so quickly to the next stage, but I dare say in time I will become quite comfortable with the institution of same-sex marriage, and I suspect I speak for a large number of Conservatives when I say it isn’t so much the substance of the change as the process and things being evolutionary and gradually taking root rather than through tumultuous change which is disturbing to the settled instinct.”

ConHome: “Who are your political heroes?”

Hammond: “Mrs T of course. I grew up in the 1970s. The first election I took any active part in was the ‘79 election.”

ConHome: “And are there other people apart from Margaret Thatcher, either in recent times perhaps further back? Perhaps Disraeli or the Duke of Wellington?”

Hammond: “Well I probably err more towards Disraeli than the Duke of Wellington. Disraeli obviously is an iconic Conservative in having broadened the appeal of the party and having recognised the ability of the party to appeal broadly. I often think we Conservatives are perhaps slightly too conservative in thinking about our appeal and how we can broaden our appeal, and sometimes the approach we take to change is slightly negative, slightly glass half empty. In fact our history shows that we have been astonishingly good at adapting to changed circumstances, and recovering ground even after changes, constitutional changes for example, that appear unlikely on the face of it to benefit us, we’ve often managed to turn them to our advantage by being pragmatic, by explaining the basic core principles of our political value set, which I think are pretty universal. With the council house sales in the 1980s we were able to break out with an application of core Conservative principle in a way that has massive appeal beyond our heartland vote.”

ConHome: “Can you see any equivalent of that now? Because in housing it would be extremely desirable. The price of property is absolutely ridiculous.”

Hammond: “Well the price of property is a function of the planning control system. We could drop the price of property immediately if we as a nation decide to do so. But that can only be done by releasing significant amounts of new development land, which of course is highly controversial.”

ConHome: “So you think it should be done?”

Hammond: “Well the question is where. Clearly a more effective transport system, including high-speed rail, which brings areas of the country where supply exceeds demand into the catchment area. Clearly a high-speed railway would broaden the catchment for commuting and help us to address the housing challenges by spreading the burden more evenly across the country. I’ve never bought the argument which some opponents of HS2 have put forward that it will simply turn the whole country into a commuter belt for London. My constituency [Runnymede and Weybridge] is in a commuter belt for London, and that brings nothing but prosperity as people earn London-level salaries and bring them back and spend them in the local community. It’s entirely positive for us.”