Opinion: Fallon down – the challenges facing the UK’s new defence secretary
Gavin Who? That’s the likely first reaction from many seasoned Whitehall warriors on the news that Gavin Williamson, the 41-year-old MP for South Staffordshire and Chief Whip, had been appointed the new Secretary of State for Defence following the unexpected resignation of Michael Fallon.
The new Secretary of State becomes the fourth incumbent of the post since 2010, inheriting a department in the throes of yet another financial crisis that will require difficult, politically unpalatable choices to fix.
Williamson arrives without prior ministerial experience and a reputation as a ‘May loyalist’ who was involved in the agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP following the 2017 election.
Unlike Fallon, a man who stood by Teresa May but was not dependent on her largesse, Williamson is perceived as the Prime Minister's man through-and-through, who most Westminster observers suspect will one day seek to succeed her.
His rapid promotion to one of the most senior departments of state is either a sign that he is tipped for even greater roles in future, or that the Prime Minister has run out of allies to put in the post.
Within the MoD there will be natural suspicion of his background, amid fears that he could have been appointed to oversee a hatchet job in delivering significant defence cuts. A politically weak Prime Minister leading a minority government will need a strong hand to push these through without a backbench rebellion and possible leadership challenge.
Appointing a former Chief Whip to deliver this could reduce the risk, as he will know the way to make truculent MPs fall into line and behave in the short term. There are likely to be many Tory MPs angry about defence cuts who will also have one eye on their own future parliamentary career and be forced to choose between principles and politics.
Williamson is already being touted in some media channels as a future hopeful candidate for No 10. For the MoD this could be an advantage – he is unlikely to want to make too drastic cuts that threaten any chance of backbench support in the near term.
The key risk he faces politically is in pushing through cuts that threaten interests of high profile Tory MPs such as the highly regarded Johnny Mercer and Penny Mourdant, both who have a strong interest in defence, particularly the Royal Navy, and both who may harbour their own leadership aspirations. Keeping the back benches on side and willing to support him will be critical in his calculations.
As a May loyalist, he is also likely to have the ability to influence her thinking on whether defence should take further cuts, and may be more easily able to make the case for reducing them to her than his predecessor.
The question is what instructions were given when he took the post – does the Prime Minister see him as a hatchet man, sent to do a politically difficult job, or does she sense an opportunity to promote an ally to succeed her, and thus be more inclined to support him?
The appointment of an individual with no ministerial experience or prior exposure to the MoD will send alarm bells ringing across the 5th floor of Main Building. Particularly so given the paucity of defence ministerial experience across the department.
Between them, the four ministers from the Commons have barely four years of collective experience in the MoD. The longest serving minister in the MoD today (Earl Howe, who shares the role with wider Lords duties) took up his post in 2015.
It takes months, if not years, to fully understand the subtleties and nuances of defence, and recognise the difference between genuine ‘service need’ and ‘special pleading’. It is inevitably easy for a new minister to want to protect the size of the front line at any cost, and any minister with aspirations for No 10 will want to keep as much headline military capability as possible and keep defence out of the headlines for the same reason.
As their experience with the department grows, ministers learn how sometimes it is better to protect the less glamorous ‘enablers’ such as logistics, infrastructure and ISTAR assets.
They realise that the reason the UK can exert influence and global reach is as much through investment in capabilities that are not front-line assets, as it is about ships or aircraft. This requires harder choices to be made, but to fully learn and understand the implications of how it all works takes time.
As their experience with the department grows, ministers learn how sometimes it is better to protect the less glamorous ‘enablers’ such as logistics, infrastructure and ISTAR assets.— Author
The challenge for the MoD is to ensure that their new Secretary of State is sufficiently well educated as to understand this ahead of key battles with the Cabinet Office and Treasury over the outcome of the National Security Review. At the same time each of the service chiefs will want to ensure that they make the strongest possible case for resourcing their own service and interests.
A new minister, still very much in the ‘shock of capture’ stage of the role, may struggle to be able to take balanced decisions under the barrage of submissions, pleading and selective leaking that all three services will indulge in to make their case.
Williamson inherits a challenging position. He has no prior experience of running a department, or acting as a minister. Now he has been thrust centre stage to lead an organisation of nearly a quarter of a million-people spending nearly £40 billion a year, and which is based across every continent on the planet while operating from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to outer space. By any reasonable measure this is a big step up from the Whips office.
His opportunity to manoeuvre is limited, politically constrained by the manifesto requirement to maintain and renew Trident, keep the Armed Forces headcount unchanged, and grow the equipment budget each year. He must do this against the backdrop of needing to identify significant additional efficiency savings (at least £5 billion of which have yet to be identified) while shrinking the MoD’s real estate holdings and cutting the civilian workforce by over 30%.
This is being done against the backdrop of a collapse in the value of the pound causing significant damage to the long-term equipment programme, and a cross government miniature Strategic Defence Review which is considering national security requirements in the round. It is not a given that the outcome of this review will be kind for defence, with the intelligence community and other departments making equally persuasive arguments for uplifts in funding.
The options he will be presented with to resolve the funding challenge will almost certainly enrage the Tory back benches whose support he needs to reach No 10. There is already strong cross party parliamentary opposition to leaked options such as the deletion of the Albion class LPDs, and Williamson will find himself quickly faced with many other options, all of which are equally painful to the UK military, and which sit uncomfortably with a Tory party that has long perceived itself as ‘strong’ on defence.
Mischief makers inside the three services may sense an opportunity to leak some of the more painful options under consideration now, in the hope that a new minister without full grasp of his portfolio will rule them out, rather than consider them in the round. Such a move would protect some empires, but will make it harder to build a balanced package of cuts to support the outcomes of the upcoming National Security Review.
Williamson may have been appointed as a reward for his loyalty and to accelerate his chances of succeeding Theresa May as Prime Minister. But he may wish to be mindful as he settles into his new 5th floor office today that only two men have ever been both Defence Secretary and Prime Minister – Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan.
Given the difficult times that lie ahead, is it likely that he will be the third to do so?