There's a category of grey, seemingly competent ministers that is exactly what every Prime Minister wants most of: the Safe Pair of Hands. Can be allowed on Newsnight without dropping a bollock; will take any job and make a fair fist of it; won't be blatantly briefing the Sundays in damaging ways or making inconvenient waves.
Some of these anodyne chaps have ambition though; and some of them rise almost imperceptably, near to the very top - our old friend Badger Darling being a case in point. What happens next, once in a blue moon, is those safe hands getting a grip on the Big Prize: but more often an honourable flop of a leadership attempt, followed by further gainful employment in the court of the eventual winner. And so on, until death or a seat in the Lords.
Another case in point would appear to be Philip Hammond. Foreign Secretary ! Who'd have thought it, back when his job was running little Colin Moynihan's consultancy vehicle for making money after the latter lost elected office in 1992. Getting into Parliament himself in '97, Hammond did the rounds of a succession of Shadow posts until victory in 2010: then Transport, then Defence - and now one of the Big 3.
But then we see the Foreign Office losing ministers left and right, and Hammond making tetchy and strident speeches on various foreign and military matters. And military. OK, he's senior to Defence now and the issues of the hour once again involve the prospect of military engagement. But Michael Fallon, now at Defence, is the possessor of an even more renowned Safe Pair, and could probably speak quite adequately for himself.
The Big Prize is in sight for a chap that far up the Pole: and he's taken care (e.g.) to distance himself from things like gay marriage - a modest but certain sign. But I'm not so sure quite how safe his hands look now.
You need good hands on those last few yards up the Pole ...