We’ve had a flurry of stories about how Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Defence, is muscling up to the Prime Minister; such as some seriously lively tales here.
Furious Mr Williamson warned the Prime Minister that if she did not commit an extra £20 billion to the Ministry of Defence then Tory MPs would vote down the next Budget – effectively passing a motion of no confidence in her.
‘I made her – and I can break her,’ Mr Williamson is said to have boasted to service chiefs.
Similar reporting is popping up elsewhere, either as a result of a campaign of careful briefing or because bored journalists are simply reposting whatever’s popping up elsewhere.
Some might see this as a bold, brave move by Williamson to protect the under-resourced and under-attack Defence budget from further erosion, giving the Forces some chance to finance various new capabilities and replace obsolete equipment. It’s certainly true that over the last fifteen years, a great deal has been delayed, deferred or cancelled to free up funds for “ongoing current operations”, and that back in 2004-5 there was still an optimistic note that the shortfalls caused would be made good once the temporary unpleasantness in Iraq had been sorted out. (Instead, of course, we decided to “solve” Afghanistan… and the problems were deferred further)
As a result, there’s a big backlog of problems that are becoming hard to ignore: unglamorous yet essential niches like the RAF’s Sentry AWACS aircraft have missed vital updates and are running out of usable life, but there’s no money available to either catch up on the skipped work, or replace them.
Unfortunately, this is more likely to be a political game where Defence is merely the ball to be kicked back and forth before being punted into touch. As a friend put it in discussion elsewhere, as far as the majority of the British public are concerned, three points apply in the debate about defence spending.
- There are no votes in Defence.
- There really are no votes in Defence.
- Did I mention that there are no votes in Defence?
The great British public would not generally like to be seen to be unsupportive of Our Brave Boys (and Girls), and will pin on poppies in November and buy the occasional Help For Heroes wristband, but given a choice between more warships for the Navy or an extra GP at their local surgery; more tanks for the Army or their local police station staying open; more planes for the Air Force or new computers for their children’s school… they don’t choose Defence.
The Prime Minister has decided to steal Labour’s sandwiches on the NHS, and to move the fight from “it’s been callously destroyed by Tory cuts” to “they’re not increasing spending on it enough!”. That basically means that any spare cash floating around UK Gov is now going to be spent on the National Health Service, and other spending departments can fight for the leftover scraps.
As far as any settlement for Defence goes, it seems at least plausible that she’s made the calculation that (a) nobody cares about Defence much outside of wartime or near-war, (b) any problems will not really bite until after she’s moved on, (c) while a vocal handful of military-minded folk may be lunging for their Basildon Bond and charging their pens with green ink for really cross letters, where are they going to go that’s more supportive of the military and the MoD? Not Corbyn’s Labour, not the Lib Dems, not the Greens… so this is a low-risk move for May.
Gavin Williamson, as SoS Defence, naturally would like more money for his department, but does he really believe it’s going to be forthcoming? But his part in this little game is not to squeeze the fabled uplift in spending out of the Treasury: it’s to position himself within the Party (whose members may be more minded to support the Armed Forces than the general public) as the Candidate Wot Cared About Our Troops when he was SoS Defence, and who went public with his fight to try to support them: rather than being the young Kevin Bacon in Animal House, “assuming the position” for the Treasury and greeting each ‘economy measure’ with “Thank you, sir, please may I have another?”
While it would be wonderful to imagine a Defence Secretary actually standing up to fight for his Department’s budget if the gap between tasks and funding was too large, it seems more likely that this is a stage-managed squabble whereby May gets to buy votes in the short term and Williamson prepares for his leadership bid downstream.