Philip Hammond, named Britain’s new foreign secretary on Tuesday, is an arch-eurosceptic who wants to leave the European Union unless London retakes significant powers from Brussels.
The former defence secretary, who replaces William Hague, is an unshowy performer dubbed the “grey man” who steered Britain through deep military cuts and a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan with little drama.
But the 58-year-old’s appointment marks a sharpening of Britain’s eurosceptic position ahead of a referendum on leaving the European Union which will be held in 2017 if Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives win next year’s general election.
Tim Montgomerie, a former Conservative speechwriter and now commentator for the Times newspaper, indicated Hammond would move the Foreign Office in a more anti-EU direction.
“It wasn’t so long ago that Philip Hammond suggested that he would be open to leaving the European Union,” he told the BBC.
“That’s not a position so far that either David Cameron or William Hague countenance.”
Others added that the move would go down well with fractious eurosceptics in Cameron’s centre-right Conservative party, who fear losing seats to the anti-EU UK Independence Party in the 2015 election.
“The fact that someone who has said that they?d vote to leave if substantial powers were not returned to the UK in the renegotiation is now foreign secretary sends a clear message to the rest of the EU about the British position,” wrote commentator James Forsyth in a blog for the Spectator magazine.
Reportedly nicknamed “Big Phil” at Conservative headquarters, Hammond grew up in Essex, and won a scholarship to Oxford University.
Hammond earned a top degree in politics, philosophy and economics — a traditional training ground for senior British politicians including Cameron.
He worked in the property, construction and energy sectors before being elected to parliament in 1997, the year Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power in a humiliating defeat for the Conservatives.
He represents Runnymede and Weybridge, an affluent commuter belt constituency on the outskirts of London.
– Low-key –
When the Conservatives were in opposition, Hammond played a key role in drawing up economic policy as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.
But when Cameron’s Conservatives took power in a coalition government in 2010, he was appointed transport secretary before stepping up to become defence secretary in 2011.
Here, he shepherded through deep defence cuts as part of government austerity measures as well as the end of the British combat mission in Afghanistan.
His elevation to one of Britain’s great offices of state was a surprise to some commentators due to his low-key style, even if he is widely regarded as being a safe pair of hands.
Some even suggested it could be a way for Cameron to keep a tighter rein on foreign policy ahead of the crucial 2017 referendum on Britain leaving the EU.
“The appointment of Hammond means Cameron will be his own FS (Foreign Secretary). Can’t let go of European policy,” tweeted Philip Collins, a Times columnist and former Blair speechwriter.