The debate surrounding Britain’s referendum on the EU is well under way. After making some surprising statements at the end of February and start of March, Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been surprisingly quiet.
Hammond’s reputation was once that of being something of a Euroscpetic. As recently as 2013, in an interview with the BBC, he suggested that he would vote to leave the EU.
On appointment to his current position, with a general election in sight, he insisted that his position was to renegotiate for a reformed EU. This general thrust of policy was enshrined in his party manifesto (page72 et seq).
After an election win, the position changed within a couple of months. In further interviews, his line was distinctly middle of the road. Mr Hammond also said the government wanted to engage in the debate “in a fair way” and would ensure public money was not allowed to be “inappropriately spent”.
In an interview with Andrew Marr, Hammond sidestepped the issues of what would be achieved relative to manifesto commitments. Effectively, he did not deny that manifesto commitments had not been realised. His suggestion, a repeat of what he told Parliament, was that voters would see the outcomes “in the round”.
The phrase “in the round” is an interesting one. Apparently its roots are in the theatre where a performance can be seen from all sides. One interpretation is that the performance can be exposed. Another is akin to a firing squad forming a circle.
Since his comments after the announcement of a referendum, Hammond might be seen as a weak link. His promises about fair debate and public funds appear to have been contradicted by the notorious £9.3m pamphlet and Osborne’s Treasury dossier.
He does seem to have been strangely quiet on EU affairs since February. What has he been up to?
A trawl of Foreign and Commonwealth Office press releases, combined with his Twitter account give us some answers. He has been incredibly busy on the world stage.
Leading up to the Easter period, Hammond was seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Paris, Baghdad, Georgia and Lebanon. Since then, his travels have taken him to Hong Kong, Beijing, Vietnam, Tripoli and Colombia.
His latest overseas appearance was in Mexico, discussing economic reform and investment opportunities for UK investment in energy and infrastructure. His previous stop was in Cuba where he was able to declare a bilateral agreement arguably to the embarrassment of the IN campaign who tell us how long it takes to strike a deal.
He has certainly been a busy bunny. During those trips, his absence from Foreign and Commonwealth question times received criticisms from both sides of the House.
Some cynics might suggest that it has been decreed as a potential liability in the campaign, Hammond is being kept out of domestic view. Certainly, some of the unease of Conservative colleagues about taxpayer funded information might be traced back to Hammond’s own comments in June 2015.
Others, arguably more cynical, might liken his disappearing act from the domestic scene to John Major’s wisdom teeth at the time of Thatcher’s toppling.
Of course, a return to the firing line would be welcome. If Britain is a democracy, it is entirely appropriate the Foreign Secretary shares his views on the most pressing foreign policy question for over 40 years. He should not miss another question time and his achievements or otherwise should be open to public scrutiny.
It will have been noted that Hammond took his front bench seat for PMQs on 4th May. The following day, he met with the delegation from Japan accompanying Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He has been silent on the outcomes.
Therefore, the question remains, has Hammond been gagged, has he gagged himself or is the flurry of meetings with representatives from around the world merely coincidence?
Victory for IN means he can claim to have won all the reforms achievable, victory for OUT presents him as a candidate who has credibility around the globe, even if his earlier slashing of defence budgets leaves him without the military power to back up support for some of the regimes he has visited.
According to opinion polls, the debate is a close run thing. Cameron has already stated that he will not stand for another term. Politicians from both sides have suggested that in the event of a LEAVE vote, his position becomes immediately untenable. Either way, there are fractures to repair in the Conservative Party.
Who is most likely to succeed him? The majority of Conservative MPs identify with the Remain camp. The decision is ultimately theirs. Even in the event of a Leave vote, internal disputes will be a challenge for those most ardent supporters to Remain. The most ardent in the Leave camp face a challenge to gain a majority.
Hammond can claim to be a suitable compromise candidate. The longer he stays quiet, the more he can be regarded as one not to have offended either side.
Perhaps more critically, he can realistically claim to have a presence on the world stage, a potential Prime Minister who can bridge gaps with those outside Fortress Europe, one with a history of bilateral agreements.
If the outcome is to remain, he might expect to be regarded as instrumental in securing the “reform” necessary to secure the vote. If the outcome is to leave, he is the man who can negotiate deals with the EU in a timely manner. In either event, he was the man to present the referendum bill.
As Iain Duncan Smith, himself a compromise candidate, famously stated at the 2002 Conservative party conference “do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man”, but why is Hammond so quiet?
Obviously, there are several weeks for Hammond to make a public contribution to the greatest debate on policy from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for over 40 years. Whilst he is waiting in the wings, his views will not be seen “in the round”. Until he does, there will inevitably be conjecture that he sees his real place as centre stage.
It is said that history repeats itself. After the 1975 referendum, when the Prime minister of the day stood down, he was succeeded by the Foreign Secretary. Just as Callaghan followed Wilson, Would anyone really bet against Hammond following Cameron?