As you might guess, morale was low on the fifth floor of the MOD during the week following Party conference, and depreciated by the day. The story broke on the last day of conference and nine days of intense media coverage later, Liam Fox had resigned.
Such was the deluge of press interest I flippantly commented to one of the Defence Ministers 'You know its bad when you have to reach for the Beano to read a paper without mention of Liam on the front cover'.
I will leave it to others to comment on the naïvety of employing a so-called "off the record" advisor, the manner of Liam Fox's departure and the political fallout for the factions across the Tory spectrum. I will say, however, that it does not take an armchair general to recognise the utter chaos Labour brought to the MOD. In just 15 months the Main Building is starting to look and feel and operate in a modern, professional and effective style that has been absent for over a decade.
Let's not forget, under Labour the MOD’s responsibility for managing budgets was removed and given to the Treasury. The Defence Secretary did not even chair or attend the department's main decision making body, the Defence Board. It was also under Labour that our valiant armed forces were committed to campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which had a coherent post conflict plan.
Today, Labour complain about the content of the SDSR but over a decade, they never conducted their own review. They whinge about the delay in aircraft carrier build, having deliberately introduced delays in construction, increasing costs by over £1bn. And they quibble over the detail of the Armed Forces Covenant, having failed to find time during 13 years in office to introduce the legislation themselves. It was a rather miserable legacy that Liam Fox and his Ministers inherited in May 2010: Labour's dodgy dossiers, 'in Helmand without firing a shot', part time Defence Secretaries and a plan (quickly reversed) to cut all TA training, to name but a few.
Since then, costly procurement overruns have been brought under control, overdue restructuring of all three services has taken place, the role of reserves has been bolstered, our Defence Export Programme has expanded, support for small businesses has increased, the operational allowance has doubled and the injustice done to the pilots killed, and their families, in the Mull of Kintyre tragedy has been reversed.
In addition, the design of our aircraft carriers has been altered so it is now interoperable with the French Rafelle and US F18 as well as a more potent version of the F35. The Royal Navy will continue our nuclear at sea deterrence, receiving six state of the art Type 45 destroyers and seven world class Astute Submarines. The Army is undergoing a long overdue re-structuring, a basing review that will finally see troops return from Germany and the upgrading of the Warrior APC fleet. The RAF will see their battle tested Typhoons upgraded to fire Storm shadow and Brimstone missiles. A400 Transport aircraft will replace the ageing Hercules fleet and Voyager A340 aircraft are now coming on line to replace the old Tri-star troop carriers.
Of course it would be remiss not to mention cuts in manpower, equipment platforms and procurement programmes but you can’t be strong militarily if you are broke and these tough decisions taken by the Defence team over the last year were the very ones Labour avoided over the last decade and which led to the £38bn MOD black hole and the department ending up in such a mess. It is then all the more remarkable that the Defence budget is now back on track.
The baton is now handed to Philip Hammond, who is regarded as one of the Government’s most assured and confident performers. And whilst his experience with the defence world might be limited, he was, in Opposition, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and therefore already familiar with what has been the MOD's achilles heel – it’s inability to spend money wisely. He also inherits a workable, if cash strapped, defence strategy which he would be wise to continue. His biggest challenge will be extracting our troops from Afghanistan before the weak, over-centralised pillars of governance collapse – but that challenge is at least another 15 months away.