Stephen Hammond has served as Member of Parliament for Wimbledon since 2005, after successfully defeating the incumbent Labour MP and gaining a 7.2% swing for the Conservatives.
Mr Hammond has also served as a Government Minister (including as Minister for Health and Social Care) and as Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party in London. He is also Deputy Chair of the Conservative European Forum and one of the strongest advocates for a close relationship with our European partners and allies.
Prior to his political activities he has also had a highly successful career in The City, having been a director at major investment banks including Dresdner Kleinworth Benson and Commerzbank.
His unique set of experiences give him a strong perspective on the health, social and economic crisis resulting from the pandemic and the prospects for pan-European cooperation to resolve these challenges.
Mr Hammond, you have been elected to the Wimbledon constituency five times, and have turned it from a Labour to a Conservative seat. What advice would you give to young politicians on getting their foot on the political ladder, winning elections and gaining the trust of constituents?
I believe there are three key areas. First of all, the way you earn the trust of constituents is by being involved in the local community and in fighting local campaigns. That builds credibility and trust, and inspires belief that if you can work with people on local ideas, then you’re also likely to be a good representative for them in the House of Commons. This is increasingly important, especially in the UK, in a way that perhaps it wasn’t a few decades ago. And you don’t have to be born in the constituency to do that, if you are selected for an area it is quite easy to immerse yourself, involve yourself and understand and have empathy with the issues.
Secondly, for any walk of life, there are many bumps along the way and therefore the resilience to persist is very important. You mentioned I have been lucky enough to be elected as Wimbledon’s MP since 2005, but I have also lost two elections before that. These losses were very important for two reasons: first of all they strengthened my belief that the broadly right of centre approach is the way forward. Secondly, I fully understood how crucial the old adage is: ‘If in life you don’t succeed, try and try again’. It is hard work being a Parliamentary candidate, it is also hard work being a Member of Parliament, and you do need resilience and persistence.
Finally, you need to make sure you have strong political convictions and a sense of public duty. That is very important. You need to understand what you believe in, you need to understand the principles of the party you want to represent and make sure those policies work. You also need to have a strong enough voice to stand up and make sure the points you want to get across are heard.
Following your election success you have also served in multiple ministerial positions, including as Minister for Health and Social Care (2018-2019). What are the key challenges in holding this position and what advice would you give to politicians in similar roles across Europe during this pandemic?
I am always reminded of Einstein’s response when he was asked about the nature of being a genius and he replied that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. So basically you have to work harder, because when you become Minister you still have a constituency to represent. There is also no substitute for being well-organised, managing your time well, and effectively prioritising the work, research and submissions – what are the decisions that need to be taken and their order of urgency.
The other aspect is being immersed in the subject, Ministers read about 10 submissions per night and you should really read them all the way through. You also have to ask questions which perhaps don’t appear to be the most intelligent but sometimes get to the nail of the issue. It is also very important to have a real concept of two or three things you absolutely need to get done. For example, we now have a people plan and that lists why we need to have certain staff positions, what are all the things that build teamwork, as well as ensure people are motivated.
For example, I worked with Matt Hancock very closely on preparing the plans for the digitalisation of the health service. At the time I had fairly immediate challenges in terms of looking at the department’s preparations in case there had been a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. One of the things that taught me is that up to that stage the health service did not properly track everything it bought.
Doing that work ensured for the first time ever the Department for Health and Social Care / NHS knew exactly what they bought in exactly what quantities. That opens a range of opportunities for looking at how we can become more effective in the future.
It is noticeable that there can still be huge variations in success rates for operations, depending on which hospital you go to. With the above knowledge we can address this and among other things by increasing standards by standardisation, rather than allowing individual idiosyncrasies. That ultimately goes back to the main point that being a Government Minister is on the one hand a great honour and a great thrill, but you should accept that the best way to do a good job is most of all hard work.
Having been a highly successful banker you have a rare mix of financial and political experiences. What would your key advice be on how governments can address the economic challenges resulting from the pandemic?
Governments have a number of challenges. Firstly, as a Conservative if you had said to me at the time of the general election, and certainly if you had said to me at the time when I was supporting the Conservative-LibDem Coalition with George Osborne as Chancellor, that the Conservatives would find themselves having to spend this amount of money, I would have laughed. Most Conservatives would have. Of course, the reason for doing so was that this was a national crisis well beyond anything seen before, well beyond the scale even of the financial crash of 2008-9. The problem with that latter was that we went into an economy in a less good place and the UK had already heavily over-borrowed and having to do extra borrowing relative to other countries and to what we would expect was the major problem. The measures we took averted a major financial problem for this country.
This time around we were faced with a problem that if we hadn’t supported people, not only would you have had a health crisis but a completely unprecedented financial crisis as well. Therefore I think it was important to spend the money. Looking forward I think one has to be realistic about 3 or 4 things. Firstly, this is a large scale of debt, and we need to think very carefully about how much of the debt we should pay off over the medium term, by which I mean 5-7 years, and how much we should restructure into long-term debt, which could be over 50-60 years.
The second thing is how you do it. I think it will be a mixture of two things – one is we are already taxing the richest in our society quite heavily and there are some calls for a wealth tax, an inheritance tax and a tax on capital gains. I would be very cautious about going there, as these are not just taxes on the wealthy, but ultimately on entrepreneurship and business. As a Conservative I absolutely believe we should not just redistribute but also grow the economy, grow it back to pre-pandemic levels of trajectories as fast as possible. And so one of the things that is clear is that if you put taxes on incentives to business that is not the right way forward. Therefore I believe there will have to be some element of acceptance that there may need to be a tax on spending. But also you need to think about which taxes bring in enough money, and also you need to implement them effectively which involves a lot of tinkering around with the important details. We need to make sure that taxes are fair and that they are bringing in a decent amount of money.
The third thing is that we may even have to spend a bit more money to invest in the future. We have to accept that with the pandemic there are things that have changed and that will remain changed. On the other hand there are also a number of economic factors that will revert back to basically normal. Some of those will not need support, but structural changes will, for example a lot more people will want to balance their quality of life by working from home more often. There will also be a lot more small businesses and entrepreneurial businesses. We’ve also seen, as I was saying about the digitalisation of the health services, that there are some things that we couldn’t do a couple of years ago but we can do now, such as online triaging. All sorts of things where we now recognise that there will be another structural shift to a more high-tech and high-tech solutions economy, and that is going to have strong implications for work and employment.
One of the other key things that governments have to think about quite carefully is on investing in the future and accepting the structural changes to the economy which I mentioned. For example, before the pandemic the British government was planning to invest a lot of money in infrastructure. That was physical infrastructure and now we should be asking ourselves if that investment should be primarily in physical or fibre infrastructure. How much more investment should we be adding to make sure people’s fibre connectedness across the country is strong and that digital access is a driver of opportunity.
Governments therefore have to do three things: look at the debt and decide how much needs to be re-assessed as short-, medium- and long-term; develop a clear plan on how we are going to pay some of that off; and create a path to growing the economy in the future.
The Conservative Party has been in power in the UK since 2010, winning several election campaigns during a historic period in British politics with many challenges, including the financial crisis of 2008-9, the Brexit referendum and leaving the EU, and now the pandemic. What would you attribute this success to?
The Conservative Party has been successful over generations for a number of reasons. First of all, although everyone talks about opportunity, aspirational opportunity is right at the core of what Conservatives believe in, and I think that is increasingly seen by others. Margaret Thatcher, for example, carried that forward by strengthening the opportunity for people to own their own homes, and David Cameron encapsulates in saying we need a modern economy where everybody has the same level of opportunity. Among many other examples, we supported this principle during his tenure, by driving away from prejudice and introducing same-sex marriage legislation, which is very powerful in showing we don’t believe in prejudices and here is what we are doing to support that principle.
In addition, Conservatives have a strong belief in the freedom of speech, freedom of individuals (combined with self-responsibility), as well as for tradition, which is not for traditions’ sake, but respecting things that work well. If you build out from that, one of the great things about the Conservative party is that it understands where its core is, but it’s not dogmatic or ideological. People regard the Conservative Party in many ways as pragmatic and practical. Therefore, if you have to be adaptable to the circumstances. As we just spoke a moment ago, you wouldn’t expect a Conservative Chancellor to spend £400 billion, but the reality is it needed to be done and we did it. These are key reasons we have continued to be successful: principles that endure and have a resonance, and the ability to be practical, pragmatic and adaptable.
We are very proud that EDS is the largest student political organisation in Europe and that BullsEye is the largest centre-right youth magazine. What advice would you give us on how young people and student organisations can best support the centre-right and the objectives you described?
Always remember the policies that make the centre-right relevant. At the moment across the continent as a response to Covid, there has been increasing centralisation. Young people often want the chance to make their own decisions. One of the great things about the centre-right is that we believe in a smaller state, a free-market state. I think one of the arguments that should be being made is that there are many very good centre-right, pro-market, small-state solutions as opposed to the large-state interventions. We all know that the government intervention properly implemented can work alongside the market but I don’t think the government should be replacing the market in areas where it doesn’t need to be there. And so especially as we shift to a more high-tech economy, ensuring that shift happens and ensuring there is a role of free markets and entrepreneurship is very key.
You have been one of the greatest advocates in the UK for close cooperation with European partners and allies. We live in times of increasing populism and common political challenges across Europe, as well as common social and economic challenges resulting from the pandemic. How can the current and next generation of politicians encourage cooperation among the centre-right in our region?
First of all, the centre-right is going to have to confront some elements of populism. That is a challenge and there is no simple, clear route to resolve that. However, one key element is that the centre-right has been elected because its principles are widely respected and therefore it needs to focus on its values, rather than, in some cases, leaking further into the right. There has been some element of centre-right parties across Europe moving further right, but that is the wrong direction.
In addition, we need to stand by our policies. For example, the Conservative party over the past 10 years has incrementally moved to a position which is largely different to its previous stance on the European Union. So the centre-right also needs to not give way to incrementalism and it needs to stand up for what it believes in.
I am working with Sir David Lidington and the Conservative European Forum to make cases that it is in the UK’s and the EU’s interest to be close neighbours. I voted to remain and still would have liked that to happen, but nevertheless there is little enthusiasm both in the UK and the EU to re-fight the referendum. I believe that is settled for a significant period of time. However, I do think it is important how we are going to build upon what we put in place, which is the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and how we are going to be good neighbours, working together in economics, political direction, security and so on. We need the political parties of the centre-right to engage a lot more closely than we have been doing. For the UK if we are not in the EU anymore, we don’t have the same opportunities to work together with other governments, and to learn lessons together, and therefore it is very important to make sure the Conservative party is aligned with sister parties.
There is a lot young people can do about that in terms of building it up. Just like anything else in life, whatever you start earlier you are likely to be better at by the time you have grown into it, and I think that strengthening those relationships is crucial, across sister parties, across age groups and across nations.
Another aspect I am looking at now is cultural links. Some of those can be really powerful in building relations between the UK and other countries across Europe. For example, I have close ties with Portugal and we are looking at setting up a student foundation between the countries or chambers of commerce.
The final thing is that some British politicians need to accept that not everything about Brexit is wonderful and some continental European politicians need to accept that not everything about Brexit is bad. We need to get through existing positions so that we can move forward to the important cooperation points. We need trade, we need link-up in the digital world, as well as in security and defence areas and many others. The message is that we should be looking at all the ways we can establish bilateral and multilateral links in a much closer way.
You mentioned we need to build up on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, what would be the best way forward to achieve that?
I am focused on ensuring that the arrangements can work in practice. For example, there are a lot of opportunities inside these agreements, such as the committees and how they are going to work. There is also the Joint Parliamentary Assembly and how that is going to be set up. Some of those bodies will be government-to-government, or EU-to-UK government, and that can be very powerful in the future. Both sides need to respect what can be put in place and what are the realistic possibilities. It is also very important for both sides to put behind prejudices of the past and to build upon those achievable areas.
In addition, business links are very important as they build prosperity and prosperity builds peace, therefore we should be unashamed about trying to do more to ensure that EU-UK trade continues to thrive and grow. We have to identify more areas we can build upon, for instance there is currently a fractious relationship on financial services and yet if we are sensible we will see the real problem. The worry is not that there is a battle between London and other financial centres in Europe, but that businesses will consider that if their weighted average cost of capital is better somewhere else in the world, they will find ways to move outside of Europe. We need to think about that in a more strategic way for the benefit of the whole of Europe. Therefore building on the Withdrawal Agreement and TCA is not just governmental, there is a big role for the private sector, as well for individuals, especially in terms of the cultural links and centre-right links I mentioned earlier.
There will also be a lot of opportunities for cooperation on the international stage. The plan for a ‘Global Britain’ should not have a Europe-shaped hole in the middle of it. So it is important to have as strong relations in our region as it is anywhere else in the world and, I would argue, even stronger as Europe is our neighbourhood.