New Faces in Defence and Security: But Still the Same Problems


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The recent Government reshuffle saw some interesting and possibly significant changes in the ministerial personnel in defence. There are changes too in responsibilities but both the new political team and the new chiefs of staff designate, whose names are currently emerging, have the same old set of intractable problems with which to deal – underfunding, overstretch, reluctant allies, elusive enemies, working with the Americans and, above all, an ambivalent attitude on the part of the British public to the whole business of defence. This last, of course, extends from the constituencies into Westminster and up the road into Whitehall. This attitude may be summed up in opinion poll findings that show the public believe we should be doing more for our troops but that, as taxpayers, we should not be spending more on defence.

Starting at the top with the new Secretary of State: John Hutton is a very different character from Des Browne, but at least he does not suffer from the handicap that was inflicted on Browne by appointing him concurrently Scottish Secretary. Hutton’s immediately preceding appointment was that of Business Secretary, a stint that should help him in getting alongside defence industrialists. Importantly he is the MP for Barrow-in-Furness and thus very well educated in the significance of both the Astute and the Trident replacements – two of the ‘big ticket’ items which pre-empt important shares in defence budgets over the next several years. Although the leg-work on the defence budget will fall to another new appointment, Quentin Davies (elected as a Conservative MP but now taking the Labour Whip) as Minister for Defence Equipment and Support – the former ‘Procurement’ brief – the Secretary of State is bound to be the one who fights in Cabinet the battle of taxpayers’ money for Defence.

Throughout the whole life of this Labour Government, the Procurement Minister has been a member of the House of Lords – Lord Gilbert, Baroness Symonds, Lord Bach, Lord Drayson and Baroness Taylor. It is an arrangement which has been in the author’s view thoroughly inappropriate: the defence budget is very much a matter of public finance from which the Lords are, by long-standing convention, excluded. Appointing a Member of the House of Commons to this position, as has now been done, is a sensible and welcome step. Quentin Davies is widely recognised as someone of great ability who could reasonably have hoped for office in a Conservative government but who somehow failed to ‘make it’ in the shadow appointments he was given. It will be interesting to see if, now that he has the substance of office, he can make things move; whether, for instance, he can revive ‘Version Two’ of Paul Drayson’s Defence Industrial Strategy which the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have managed to move off the front burner.

Kevan Jones, a long standing Labour backbencher with a positive and constructive interest in defence issues and a strong contributor to the work of the Defence Committee, particularly in the critical probing of the MoD, has been brought in as an Under Secretary alongside Davies to replace Derek Twigg as Minister for Veterans. The latter seemed to be doing a perfectly adequate job with the veterans brief, but he has nevertheless been returned to the backbenches.

Bob Ainsworth remains as Minister for the Armed Forces and thus Hutton’s number two. His initial appointment to this job, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, was something of a surprise – he had seemed likely to continue in the Whips’ office where he had served for several years – but he has grown into the job very well. The Conservative Whips Office was traditionally populated by former officers of the armed forces and Ainsworth’s appointment was a neat reversal of this – a Whip sent to discipline the armed forces.

The other defence minister – Baroness Ann Taylor – having lost the Defence Equipment and Support brief to Quentin Davies has been given a wholly new one of ‘Minister for International Defence and Security’. She remains, of course, defence spokesman across the board in the House of Lords. It is yet to be seen exactly what she will do and, in particular, how her responsibility for security fits in with that of Lord West of Spithead as Minister for Security at the Home Office.

The MoD thus now has five ministers in place of four. As these matters are usually seen in Whitehall, this would indicate that more weight is being attached to the role of the Department concerned.

For the Conservative opposition, the defence team remains as before. Liam Fox is the Shadow Secretary of State. The positions set out in his speeches are notable for his informed concern for energy security; they frequently disclose a continuing distaste for European engagement and a reasoned enthusiasm for good relations with the USA. Gerald Howarth covers aerospace and procurement generally, as well as the demanding role of acting as Fox’s number two. Julian Lewis covers the Royal Navy and Andrew Murrison the Army, taking in with that the role of Parliamentary representative on the leader’s commission on the Military Covenant. Lord Astor of Hever continues to lead on defence in the Lords, whilst also supporting Lord Howell on foreign affairs there. The Shadow Ministerial enlargement has taken the form of Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones’s appointment as shadow Security Minister and adviser to the leader on national security issues.

For the Liberal Democrats, Nick Harvey is the defence spokesman in the Commons, but Sir Menzies Campbell has recently weighed in with a contribution on the Military Covenant. In the Lords, Lord Lee of Trafford (who was a conservative when he was in the Commons) has taken the place of the late Tim Garden. Lee has made a notable mark with his private members bill on the Gurkhas.

Concentration on the roles of ministers and official spokesmen should not be allowed to obscure the work of the Defence Committee of the Commons under the chairmanship of the former Conservative Defence Minister, James Arbuthnot. Bernard Jenkin, the most articulate advocate on the Conservative benches of increased defence expenditure, is now firmly and actively based in that committee.

With our armed forces engaged in two major conflict deployments – Iraq and Afghanistan – defence issues find a reasonably frequent place on the Parliamentary agenda in both Houses, but defence in the narrowest sense of the term is significantly subsumed in the broader debate on security.

 

Humphry Crum Ewing

Associate Fellow, RUSI

Adviser to Lord Astor of Hever, Conservative Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.




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