The shot across Gavin Willamson’s fenceline was provocatively targeted. By describing him as “looking like Private Pike from Dad’s Army”, a reported ally of Philip Hammond’s – whoever such a person may have been – was deliberately highlighting the new Defence Secretary’s youth and inexperience as a senior Minister. It is a feature of such anonymous quotes that one usually can’t be sure where they come from. If this was so in this instance, it follows that the Defence Secretary’s own allies wouldn’t have known who the culprit was and how close he or she was to the Chancellor – if at all.
In any event, they decided to escalate. The original shot was answered by a volley of mortar fire. “A defence source” briefed the Times that “the Chancellor has been banned from using a fleet of RAF jets and helicopters until the Treasury settles a bill with the Ministry of Defence”. Hammond’s department disputes the claim. In any event, and as the paper itself acknowledged, the Chancellor is not the only Minister who uses RAF craft: so do the Prime Minister, and the Foreign and Brexit secretaries. Furthermore, “it is understood that the Treasury is preparing to pay the bill, which stretches from at least last year, imminently”.
There is little to add save the obvious. We journalists love incendiary quotes to bits (such as the one about the Defence Secretary originally given to the Mail on Sunday) and incendiary stories even more. But they do no Government any good at the sunniest of political times, let alone when Brexit storms are raging. There is a special risk for the Defence Secretary. He knows that anyone ill-disposed to him may take potshots at his newness to the post and the armed services. If his allies in the department fire back, and then some, the risk is to his reputation for grown-upness, not theirs – thus projecting the charge thrown at him in the first place.
This is unfair. There is no suggestion that Williamson himself had anything to do with the Times story, any more than there is that the Chancellor knew about the Mail on Sunday quote. But it is also how politics works, as the Defence Secretary knows well. He has a good case to make (and gives his first major interview today). The armed forces need numbers and kit to help deal with ISIS and deter Russia. At any rate, no politician can stop sympathisers miscalculating. So our message is to them, not him: don’t act like children. And we will have one for Hammond, for what it’s worth, if the armed forces are refused further cash that they need.