Philip Hammond on Coalition with the Lib Dems: horses for courses?

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2013

philip hammond house magazineThere’s an interesting interview with Tory defence secretary Philip Hammond in this week’s House magazine. Two snippets in particular will be of interest to Lib Dem readers.

Let’s start with the defence department and horses. In the lead-up to the spending review when tensions were spilling over between the treasury and the spending departments, Danny Alexander remarked in an interview: “Of course, in a department that has more horses than it has tanks, there are room for efficiency savings without affecting our overall military output.”

Danny’s jibe stung the MoD (which does indeed have over 500 horses, mostly for ceremonial duties, compared with 227 Challenger 2 tanks). Here’s Mr Hammond:

“I think if I’d have pitched up at Downing Street and said ‘you know what? I can do some cuts but it will mean getting rid of all the horses, and we won’t be able to do the Trooping of the Colour’, I would quite probably be accused of shroud-waving. I think I’m not quite sure about those comments, made as they were two days before the Trooping of the Colour.

“Of course the Army has more horses than it has tanks. I would say that the ceremonial role that the Army plays – which is a tiny, tiny part of their overall activity – is very important both to internal morale, military morale, but also of course, it generates billions of pounds of return for the UK in terms of international reputation, tourist revenue, greetings card sales. If you were looking at it as an investment in UK plc it’s a very worthwhile investment.”

Hammond’s little-seen sense of humour surfaces once more: “I presume Danny Alexander would put bagpipes in the same category as horses, as things which don’t deliver direct military effect. I would tell him the same story about bagpipes.”

Philip Hammond sees this as an illustration of the disconnect between the defence department and the Lib Dems more widely since the party lost its ministerial representatives in the MoD and the foreign office: Nick (now Sir Nick) Harvey was asked to step aside by Nick Clegg, while Jeremy Browne was moved across to the home office.

Was he surprised his Coalition partners pulled their ministers from the MoD and Foreign Office in the last reshuffle? “I was surprised yes, I hadn’t seen that coming at all. But very disappointed. I think we are the poorer for not having that direct link into the Deputy Prime Minister’s office and having someone in here who really understands defence.”

It’s an interesting take from a Tory who’s not usually regarded as the most Lib Dem-friendly. I argued last year that it would be a good idea “to focus Lib Dem resources in key departments, rather than spread ourselves so thinly”. I think I’ve changed my mind since.

For sure, there are weaknesses in trying to embed a Lib Dem in every department. Too often it’s resulted in an uncomfortable impasse, and very often with the (junior) Lib Dem minister forced to front on Newsnight and elsewhere for Coalition policies which were driven chiefly by the (senior) Tory cabinet minister.

But Mr Hammond has a point. If you’re going to govern for five years within a single coalition government it’s better to have a proper channel of communications, with both Tory and Lib Dem ministers understanding departmental spending pressures (rather than, say, assuming that putting some horses out to pasture is the best way to generate savings) — and with both Tory and Lib Dem ministers committed to delivering the savings needed.

And if that doesn’t persuade you of the argument for having ministers from both parties across government departments, ask yourself this question: How much more grisly would the spending review process have been if departments had been divvied up into Tory/Lib Dem strongholds, pitched into battle against each other?

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.