Are we seeing some subtle shifts in British foreign policy since William Hague was replaced by Philip Hammond in the Cabinet reshuffle?
There has been no roll of drums, no fireworks, no posing in Downing Street, but under the “grey man” presiding over the palatial surroundings of King Charles Street, the mood music has altered.
First, Hammond toughened Britain’s negotiating position over membership of the European Union. Then, for good measure, according to the Financial Times, he hardened British support for Israel among the mayhem in Gaza.
David Cameron has stubbornly adopted the incredible position that, while he wants fundamental reform of the EU, in the proposed In/Out 2017 referendum he will recommend that Britain stays “In” the EU whatever the outcome of his arm-wrestling with Brussels.
Occasionally, his aides have hinted that he might contemplate Out if he fails to obtain any significant repatriation of powers, but such words are yet to pass his lips.
Not so Mr Hammond. In his first TV outing last weekend, Hammond was quite explicit in saying that if Britain did not get its way, the British people would vote to leave.
He said: “If the offer by our European partners is nothing – no change, no negotiation – I am pretty clear what the answer of the British people will be.
“There has to be substantive renegotiation, substantial change in Europe that addresses the concerns Britain has. Then we will put it to the British people…
“If there is no change at all in the way Europe is governed, no resolution of the challenge of how the Eurozone can succeed and coexist, that is not a Europe that can work for Britain in the future.”
The strange thing is that with Hague, once regarded as the most Eurosceptic Conservative politician of his generation, the architect of the “Keep the Pound” election campaign of 2001, such bellicose language was signally absent. Observers assumed that he had gone native under the insidious influence of the mandarins in the FCO.
Not so Hammond, assuming he sticks to his guns. His words about the possibility of Britain quitting the EU will be anathema to the Department for Foreigners. But they will cheer the hearts of all Tories – and others – who want to see their country regain its independence from foreign rule.
So where is all this leading?
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hammond has been given licence by No 10 to bang the drum for a far more Eurosceptic stance as the election approaches. Cameron and his Aussie sidekick and campaign chief Lynton Crosby know that the chances of the Tories winning outright next year are negligible unless they can win back their UKIP defectors.
Farage’s party is still polling in the teens and has not – as many predicted – fallen back from its high water mark in the European elections. Unless it can be driven down to 4-5 per cent (compared with the 12-14 per cent it is polling now) Ed Miliband is favourite to win in 2015.
Hence the softly spoken former businessman and wealthiest man in the Cabinet (with a first in PPE from Oxford) at the helm of European policy.
Political logic suggests that further toughening of Britain’s negotiating position ahead of the election is inevitable. Hammond is in the vanguard of this political shift and where he follows Cameron will not be far behind. Dave’s party conference speech in late September will be closely scrutinised for signs that he is prepared to contemplate British exit from Europe if he does not get his way.
Hammond may have risen without trace. But he has not always been so grey. In his state schools days Hammond was a scary Goth. According to one classmate, “he used to arrive in class in leather trench-coat with The Guardian under his arm.”
He may have ditched The Guardian but he has not lost the capacity to bring the dark horror of the Goth music scene to the corridors of Whitehall and Brussels. And if Dave comes a cropper at the election and the Tories need a new leader. don’t rule out our shadowy Foreign Secretary.