Stephen Hammond: “No deal would be a catastrophe for this country"

Posted On: 
7th February 2019

Stephen Hammond was caught off guard when Theresa May asked him to join the government in November. Though he has undergone a remarkable transformation from Brexit “mutineer” to minister, the Tory MP has not resiled from his views on leaving the European Union. But as the man in charge of EU exit in the Department of Health, he is ensuring the UK is ready for all eventualities. He talks to Sebastian Whale

Stephen Hammond is a minister in the Department of Health
Credit: 
PA Images

Exactly a year and a day after being labelled a Brexit mutineer on the front page of a national newspaper, Stephen Hammond was asked to join Theresa May’s government. And no one was more shocked than he was.

“I had always hoped that it might happen, but frankly as the years had gone on since I was last a minister I hadn’t expected it. It was a complete surprise and completely unexpected,” the Wimbledon MP tells The House.

Though he’s physically left his spot in the new Tory awkward squad – a group of pro-EU MPs often seated in the top right corner of the Conservative benches – Hammond has by no means given up the ghost. The Health minister, who is a supporter of the so-called Malthouse compromise currently being explored by No10, felt he was better served putting forward the case for a soft Brexit from inside government.

“It was a major consideration to me,” he says. “Without betraying any confidence, it was part of the conversation I had with the Prime Minister prior to accepting her extraordinary offer.”

For the first time in his parliamentary career, Hammond, who became an MP in 2005, voted against his government in order to grant MPs a meaningful vote. Though deeply conflicted about rebelling, his “passion” for the issue meant he had to set aside party loyalty. “Had we not done what we had done in December ’17, there is a real chance that parliament wouldn’t have had the chance to have the say it’s having today. I absolutely think that’s right,” he explains.

He adds: “My role has been both outside and now inside government to argue the case that protects the livelihoods of my constituents and our country. We have been a member of the European Union for the last 45 years. We need to remain closely aligned economically and diplomatically, in my opinion. Therefore, I’ve always argued for what is commonly termed as a soft Brexit. I still believe that no deal would be a catastrophe for this country.”

We are sitting in Hammond’s office on the top floor at the Department of Health; a uniquely modern government building equidistant from Westminster and Victoria in London. It is the morning after another significant night in the Commons, with Parliament beginning to flesh out what it would and would not countenance on Brexit. As a result, we know that MPs are both not in favour of a no deal exit and want the PM to renegotiate the backstop element of her Withdrawal Agreement.

There was chatter in Westminster that several ministers were prepared to resign to vote for Dame Caroline Spelman’s non-binding amendment looking to rule out leaving the EU on WTO terms. But with the PM pledging to go back to Brussels to seek concessions on the controversial backstop – the mechanism by which a hard border would be prevented if the UK and the EU fail to strike a new relationship before the end of the transition period – a wave of resignations was prevented for the time being.

“The Prime Minister made the commitment last night that by February 13th if she has not secured a deal or a new revised deal has been voted down on February 14th, there will be a chance for the House of Commons to have a vote on what happens next,” Hammond says. “A lot of my colleagues listened very carefully to what the Prime Minister said and made the decision that… the Prime Minister should rightly have the chance to see if there is a deal that can be achieved.”

Whether May’s intention will become a reality remains unclear. Senior figures in Brussels have defiantly insisted the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.

“You and I both know that whenever you start a negotiation, both sides don’t immediately roll over and say, ‘of course I’m going to take the other side’s view’. It is not unsurprising to hear noises that progress can’t be made,” Hammond interjects.

“I’m hopeful that the Government will be able to go to Brussels, I’m hopeful that they will be able to negotiate a mutually beneficial Withdrawal Agreement and the House of Commons will pass it. But the opportunity to ensure that no deal doesn’t happen by mistake and the opportunity to block that is there in two weeks’ time. I have no doubt that many of my colleagues and I will take that opportunity if that appears to be the eventuality.”

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The vacancy at the Department of Health came up when Stephen Barclay moved to DExEU to fill the void left by Dominic Raab, who resigned over the PM’s Brexit deal. It had been nearly four and a half years since Hammond was last in government as a minister in the Department for Transport under David Cameron.

Not only was it a momentous time to be joining the Government – the Withdrawal Agreement had been struck just days before – the long-awaited NHS Ten-year plan was nearing its final stages. The plan, put forward by NHS England in collaboration with the Department of Health, includes proposals to prevent 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia cases through greater use of high-tech treatments and diagnostic testing. There are also pledges to improve mental health care – including tailored services for young adults – and to address pressures faced by NHS staff.

Hammond, who oversees issues relating to workforce, acknowledges the difficulties in meeting the ambitions set out in the ten-year plan. “There are a number of challenges and nobody is suggesting there isn’t. But everything else we want to do in that plan is integral on getting the right sort of workforce numbers and the right training workforce,” he says.

The department has asked Dido Harding, the chair of NHS Improvement, to lead the development of the NHS workforce implementation plan, which will produce an initial report in April outlining what’s required on staffing. Harding will also consider how to ensure the health service is an “employer of excellence”. Hammond is keen to highlight the launch of the nursing associates programme, which he says will “fill the gap” between healthcare assistants and registered nurses.

Questions have been raised though about the culture in the NHS as it emerged that a fifth of doctors were victims of bullying or harassment in 2017, according to a report by the British Medical Association. Hammond says a change in the culture is required.

“We also do have to recognise though that we do have a number of extraordinarily capable managers. We do need a professional managerial class which the highest levels of the medical profession can engage with and work with,” he adds.

One of Hammond’s focus areas is on retention, with one role in 11 currently vacant in the NHS (the equivalent of more than 100,000 staff). “We train huge numbers of people, a really skilled workforce, but we want to make sure that they recognise how much they’re appreciated, making sure that we do everything can to makes sure that they want to stay, so they know they have a career which can be varied, challenging and continually upgrading their education levels,” he says.

NHS staff have been made exempt from the proposed £30,000 salary cap for migrant workers under consideration at the Home Office. Hammond says discussions are still ongoing about the cap’s application to social care workers. But what does he think of the policy overall?

“I understand that we want to have our own immigration policy and that has clearly been a stated ambition of the Government. The Home Secretary is obviously taking the new bill through. We have made the very clear case for NHS staff and medical staff. I’m sure other departments will be making that case as well,” he replies diplomatically.

With Hancock at the helm, a large focus of the department is on the digitalisation of the NHS. But littered throughout the history of the health service are the carcasses of failed and deeply expensive transformation projects. What will be different this time around?

“The first thing is, of course, it is being led by someone who has actually a passionate interest in this, and not just because it’s an end in itself, it’s because of what it’s going to deliver,” Hammond argues.

“People talk about the productivity of the NHS, what that really means is we treat more people and give people better care. In all of our working lives, we now have digital tools that will do things in a different way. The NHS was fabulous in 1948, fabulous in 1970, fabulous in 2000. But since 2000, there have been huge leaps and there are huge things we can do.” He also hints at upcoming announcements regarding the digital transformation of the NHS.

The plan was formulated following the funding boost announced last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the health service, with the NHS set to receive £20bn extra a year by 2023/2024. But the Government has yet to clarify how the pledge will be funded, short of outlining a disputed Brexit dividend earned when payments for EU membership draw to a close. Hammond insists that the commitment will be met regardless of what takes place with Brexit. Does he believe a softer Brexit would make it easier to meet the target?

“No one is under any illusions about the sort of Brexit I think we should have. No one is under any illusions why I’m arguing that, because the economy will be stronger and therefore it rather helps my current role if I’m arguing for that because it makes it more likely that the Government will have more money in it,” he replies. “However, what I’m saying to you and what we want to make explicit, this is a firm commitment to funding which is £20.5bn in real terms, just over £33bn in cash terms.”

So, it would be made even in the event of a no deal Brexit? “It will be made even under a no deal Brexit,” he replies.

As the minister overseeing EU exit in the Department of Health, Hammond has spent a lot of time contingency planning for a no deal Brexit. Although such an outcome is “the last thing this government wants”, he insists, it is “absolutely right” that necessary steps have been taken to ensure the UK is ready. He notes work done encouraging drug companies to hold a buffer stock of six weeks supply over and above their normal stock, the procurement of extra ferry capacity, provisions for the transfer and warehousing of medical isotopes and the championing of the contribution EU nationals make to the health service, among others.

Hammond is certainly one minister who would do what he felt was necessary to prevent leaving the EU empty-handed, which he describes as a “calamitous outcome”. His collaboration with leading Brexiteers in shaping the Malthouse compromise – the solution that includes extending the implementation period by a year and pursuing an ERG-backed arrangement to prevent a hard border in Ireland – shows that his first priority is to secure a deal.

But if the opportunity arises over the coming weeks in the Commons, and if the PM once more fails to get her deal through, would he resign to vote against a no deal Brexit?

“We will all have to look into our conscience at that stage. But I don’t think anyone can doubt my principles and what my view would be if that is the last opportunity,” he responds.

“I’m pretty clear where my responsibilities lie, much as I love this job, much as I think the NHS is a wonderful, wonderful institution… I’m also very clear that as Members of Parliament we have a moral duty to our country and our constituencies. If you look at my record over the last year, no one can question my moral view on that.”