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

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • The removal of Nick Harvey from Defence was yet another Clegg blunder – not only for the reasons outlined by Philip Hammond but it has hampered our ability to argue against Trident and a potential invasion of Iran as well as making us look weak on defence.


  • ‘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?’

    You mean there would have been a fight put up by the Lib Dems? Can’t have that now can we.

  • And there was I thinking that the new Defence Secretary was uncomfortable at having a senior minister who knew more than he did!

  • Colin I assume it just may have crossed your mind that our leaders don’t want any real sort of argument about Trident? Just the usual, NC says ” We don’t want Trident replacement very much”. Cameron tells him he won’t get that through his own party, and that’s an end to the matter (apart from a bit of shouting at Conference, which will be ignored, in the now usual way).

  • @colinrosss yes having no one at Defence might have been okay if we had someone at the FCO but to have nobody in either was bonkers.

    Also Jeremy Browne seems to have been pretty invisible in his Minister of State Roll at the Home Office where as Lyn as an Parliamentary Under Secretary was able to get visibility on some pretty important areas of policy.

  • David Pollard 28th Jun '13 - 7:38pm

    The ceremonial generates billions of £ in tourism and post card sales. I wonder where he got the facts? I thought the royal family and the arts did that. If there is an income, the MOD should set up a company and make it self sustaining. As someone who works at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mobray once said to me “When I look at a horse I see a ton of dog meat (or he could have added – beef burgers)

  • nuclear cockroach 29th Jun '13 - 11:11am

    The arguments in favour of the Trident replacement programme are generally of the sort that appeal to children who get their mummies and daddies to check under the bed for spiders and snakes and bogeymen, before going to bed at night.

  • nuclear cockroach 29th Jun '13 - 6:40pm


    I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, unlike yourself apparently. If the review’s conclusions were strongly in favour of the Trident replacement, I would have thought it would have been leaked by now.

  • nuclear cockroach 29th Jun '13 - 6:48pm

    As for actual arguments for the like-for-like replacement of Trident, I remember our current Prime Minister getting rather worked up about the need for an SLBM system in order to “deter North Korea”. It didn’t take much thought to realise (as I pointed out on this forum) that a nuclear strike against the DPRK using Trident D5’s would require a ballistic trajectory over Russian and or Chinese territory. Unless one proposed sending Trident through Suez, Panama or around the Cape, all rather dubious propositions.

  • I was deeply upset that Clegg gave up our ministers in the MOD and FCO (certainly he needs some defenestration – referring to the defenestrateclegg responder common in these pages) as a result..

    I assume that Danny Alexander was tongue in cheek in his comments. The cost of ceremonial duties is miniscule, but a significant contribution to our collective national life. The real defence heavy guzzlers (with at best highly dubious positive defence impacts for us() are operations in Afghanistan and the putative replacement of Trident and the required submarines.

  • nuclear cockroach 30th Jun '13 - 6:02pm

    Errr, no.

  • Jonathan Brown 1st Jul '13 - 9:39pm

    Re: Nick Harvey and Trident; he came to Portsmouth to talk about a range of subjects to do with the military recently, and Trident obviously came up. I was rather surprised at his summary of the situation as ‘if you think we need a nuclear deterrent at all then a powerful case can be made that Trident is the most efficient way of having one’. Although he didn’t state this outright, the implication was that he was of the opinion that we did need one – and so should find the money to pay for it.

    It was a very interesting talk, with good arguments and fun anecdotes. I think I tend more towards the view that we’d be better off spending the money on other parts of our armed forces and scrapping Trident, although keeping a ‘breakout’ capability – to allow us to quickly re-arm if we felt it absolutely vital.

  • Jonathan Brown 4th Jul '13 - 12:58am

    @jedibeeftrix – well, that rather depends what the report says. I was surprised, as I’d assumed he’d obviously be against renewal, but it was still a personal view that he was expressing. Or hinting at. (And I may have misunderstood.)

    In any case, making the case that we don’t need nukes is not necessarily the same as saying we don’t need Trident. What he was saying could just as easily be taken as ‘if we scrap Trident, we shouldn’t think we’re going to get an equivalent nuclear deterrant for less’. As a country, we may be happy with a lesser one, but we shouldn’t pretend that it’s as ‘cast iron’ as Trident. We’ll have to see…

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