Aaron Ellis 7.01am
There are few pastimes as pleasurable for politicos as ministerial musical chairs.
They are opportunities for them to show off their smarts about the Westminster bubble: listing the virtues and vices of one obscure politician after another, weighing up their chances; dismissing absurd suggestions.
On Friday, as soon as it was confirmed that Dr Liam Fox was resigning as Defence Secretary, all kinds of names were put forward as his replacement.
Andrew Mitchell was the most credible candidate in the Cabinet: he is an ex-Army officer and has proven to be a success as International Development Secretary.
There were occasional mentions of Philip Hammond, the grey Transport Secretary, but at the time I dismissed this as absurd. How was he qualified for the role, apart from having a reputation for administrative competence?
Perhaps the Prime Minister would choose a figure from outside the Government to avoid a reshuffle. Sir Malcolm Rifkind was talked of, and what about Bernard Jenkin? Maybe he would pick a Lib Dem heavyweight like Lord Ashdown? Oh hell, make it Bill Cash!
I thought it was important to consider what David Cameron could be looking for in a new Defence Secretary. They had to have experience and knowledge. “When the country is at war, when Whitehall is at war, we need people who understand war in Whitehall”, Mr Cameron said at the Conservative party conference in 2009.
They needed to be dissimilar to Liam Fox, in terms of their personality, but also considered as ‘sound’ by Tory backbenchers.
Once all these things had been tallied, it was obvious to me who it should be: James Arbuthnot, MP for North East Hampshire.
Mr Arbuthnot combines experience with knowledge, having served as a junior defence minister under John Major and as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee since 2005. He is not ‘charismatic’ in the risky mode of Liam Fox, but he is a solid figure and favourable to his party’s right wing. His candidacy is strengthened by the fact that he is standing down as a MP at the next election - it would give Mr Cameron the opportunity to bring in ‘fresh blood’ should he win in 2015.
But the Prime Minister did not choose Mr Arbuthnot, or Sir Malcolm Rifkind, or, indeed, any of the many experienced, knowledgeable politicians on offer to him in the Conservative party. He chose Philip Hammond instead, who, according to Fraser Nelson, “has little interest” in defence. It was a bad choice by Mr Cameron, if only because it undermines further his grand ambitions for British foreign policy.
The dominant media narrative about ‘Cameroon foreign policy’ is that it was simply about selling stuff to foreigners until it found a purpose in the Arab Spring. In reality, Mr Cameron and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, have always fancied themselves as grand strategists who will reverse the drift of the Labour years, revive damaged institutions like the Foreign Office, and ready our country for the challenges of the 21st century.
Since October 2010, however, they have consistently fallen short of these goals: the National Security Strategy (NSS) was bland; the defence review (SDSR) was a mess; and Libya was a distraction. The elevation of the competent but uninformed Hammond to the MoD is just the latest in a long list of things that have shown up this Government’s claims to be re-making British foreign policy.
We have had seven Defence Secretaries since September 11th, 2001, one of whom doubled as the head of another department. David Cameron reassured many in the military when he promised there would be no “revolving door” at the MoD if he were Prime Minister. Liam Fox’s unavoidable resignation means that we are stuck with Mr Hammond for another four years in order for him to keep that promise. Four years of awkward photo-ops in Helmand, of feigning interest in the jargon of the generals, of polite applause at RUSI events after dull speeches on the future of our Armed Forces.
This does not bode well for the Government’s desired reforms. A vignette from the memoirs of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former UK Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, makes this point best:
I suggested to one of the Cabinet Ministers considering the paper that he might want to question whether the deployment made any sense…His reply illustrated all the difficulties of civilian politicians with no military expertise assessing military advice. “Sherard,” he said, “I don’t know the difference between a tornado and a torpedo. I can’t possibly question the Chief of the Defence Staff on this.”
I hope to be proven wrong about Philip Hammond. Perhaps he will be the Robert Gates to Dr Fox’s Donald Rumsfeld, only without the decades of experience that Mr Gates brought to the Pentagon – so making the comparison redundant.
But unless he displays even a fraction of the wisdom and leadership of that great US Defence Secretary, I shall view Philip Hammond’s appointment as a mistake. A mistake that the Prime Minister is responsible for.
Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis