“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies,” Gore Vidal once said. Colleagues are not always friends. But a little something certainly died in some of Gavin Williamson’s when the former Chief Whip became Defence Secretary. Part of the reason was his youth (Williamson is 41). Another part was his inexperience (he had never spoken at the despatch box before his appointment, and has no background in defence matters). Another was his term as Chief Whip, in which he was extremely effective (he never lost a vote) but not universally popular – though who is?
But is is hard to believe that his promotion would have raised as many hackles had he been elevated, say, to Work and Pensions, or Education, or International Development. The fact is that the Ministry of Defence has a talismanic quality for a large slice of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. During the last Parliament, some one in 13 MPs had served in the armed forces. ConservativeHome carried a photo of 36 of them. All except three were Tories. The proportion won’t have changed all that much since. For Conservatives, Defence is almost on a rank with the four great offices of state. Tory places on the Defence Select Committee are fiercely contested.
So no wonder Williamson’s appointment caused resentment. We wrote when it happened that, if the generals fear that he will simply do the Treasury’s bidding, “we suspect that they may be agreeably surprised”. Our reasoning was that the new Defence Secretary’s very youth, inexperience, and lack of a defence background will make him more likely to dig in against the Treasury than otherwise, precisely because he has a point to prove. He is also an ambitious man with a thorough understanding from his previous role of what makes his colleagues tick. Many of them duly turned up to press for more spending during his debut at Defence questions yesterday.
Not so long ago, much of the debate about defence tended to be polarised between advocates of a bigger navy and a bigger army. Now there is a third element. “Are we really ready to switch resources from conventional weaponry and platforms to spotty youths in computer centres?” James Gray wrote on this site in August. He was referring to the cyber-threat from Putin’s Russia as well as from Islamist extremists. Then there is Trident. There is a backbench campaign to take the £600 million cost of the submarine replacement programme out of the Defence budget altogether. Williamson will also be well aware of the Francois Review into army recruitment.
Labour quizzed him yesterday on whether he had specifically pressed the Chancellor for more defence cash pre-Budget. He refused to be drawn. “I want to ensure that we have the arguments ready, we understand the threats that this country faces and we deliver for our armed forces,” he said. “I have had many conversations with the Chancellor, and I look forward to having many more.” This sounds like a man who is still reading and thinking his way into the job. But he went out of his way to rule out very little, including ring-fencing the Trident spending, and said that he sees the NATO two per cent commitment “as a base as opposed to a ceiling”.
There is a National Security Capability Review. Tory backbenchers fear that its purpose is to slash spending – and, as a former Defence Secretary himself, Philip Hammond will know the negotiating ropes. Williamson got the headlines he will have wanted this morning: “Defence minister prepared to fight chancellor for extra funding,” declares the Times. Cynics will suspect stage management – and perhaps they are right. But given the pressures on the Defence budget, new forms of threat as well as familiar ones, the agitation of his colleagues and his own aspirations, we suspect that Williamson really is – as some Tory MPs put it – “on manoeuvres”.