‘Give me £20 billion or I’ll bring you down’, blares the Mail on Sunday‘s splash today, paraphrasing its report on Gavin Williamson’s campaign to secure extra defence funding from the Prime Minister. It’s certainly an eye-catching story – here are a few first thoughts:
- He isn’t asking for £20 billion. At least not in the way such things are normally calculated. The well-publicised £20 billion extra on health is a £20 billion increase in its annual budget. Williamson is asking for ‘a minimum of £2 billion a year extra for the next decade’, ie a tenth of the NHS settlement. Working the calculation up to a decade total has two effects – it makes it sound like a more drastic commitment to defence spending than it really is, but simultaneously ensures that what is being requested is not impossible for the Chancellor to provide, if he decides to.
- This is a traditional sport for Defence Secretaries… All ministers battle with the Treasury over their financial allocations, but defence is historically both somewhat starved (right back to Wellington’s day) and more popular in the country than many other departments. It also has an internal lobby which has many natural supporters in the electorate and the press, so any wise Defence Secretary works hard to ensure they are visibly a champion of the forces in their dealings with the bean counters. It helps them do their job in the short term, and – they reason – can help their career prospects among the party faithful in the longer term.
- …and it’s one that Williamson has been playing with gusto since he took on the job. If anything, the briefing campaign about the Defence Secretary’s ardent championing of his department’s budget has been more enthusiastic and more punchy even than is normal for the MoD. The Chancellor’s team certainly seemed a bit surprised by how quickly the whole contest became personal – though they did hit back, including with the infamous description of Williamson as “Private Pike” which is reported to have stung him. It’s probable that, with his eye on defence long before he was given the brief, he plotted out such a strategy in advance – but also that he was spurred to be visibly very active by the awareness that some of his colleagues were less than happy about his promotion.
- He has built alliances. If at the tail end of last year Williamson was looking a bit isolated in the face of a variety of critics, today’s coverage is evidence that he has successfully cultivated a gaggle of allies. General the Lord Dannatt piles in to make the funding case, and Julian Lewis appears in his capacity as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, tapping on the glass plate window of the Government to declare “Nice shop you’ve got here, it’d be a shame if any rocks happened to it.” (His actual words are: “There need be no political risk to the Prime Minister – if she does the right thing,” which is as clear as it could be.)
- The cash grant for the NHS has fired up the dispute. It was always going to happen – relaxing the purse strings and allowing some ministers to shed the strict self-discipline of (relative) austerity has knock-on effects. You can’t feed just one animal in a herd, as they others look on; they all pile in and demand their fodder, too. When all departments wanted money, but none were given what they wanted, there was at least some equity and fellow-feeling among ministers, and a genuine air of being “all in this together”. Now that Jeremy Hunt has tens of billions extra, however, the arguments write themselves. Lewis: “If the NHS can get an extra £20 billion a year, then defence surely deserves one tenth of that just to stand still.” Dannatt: “The Chancellor may say he has no more money but he always has options: to increase taxes, to increase borrowing or to trim the overseas aid budget of 0.7 per cent of GDP.” The Chancellor’s concern about handing out more money in the first place was that doing so would leave him struggling to answer such arguments.
- Williamson’s attack has escalated from the Chancellor to the Prime Minister. The traditional briefing game I refer to above normally involves targeting the Chancellor. They, after all, are actually in charge of the Budget – and it is normally a bit safer to go in studs-up on the occupant of Downing Street who does not control reshuffles or possess the ultimate authority of government. It’s a sign of the times, however, that Williamson and his allies apparently feel it is safe to escalate the conflict over defence spending to attacks on Theresa May, not just on Hammond. That’s a challenge: would any Prime Minister dare to make a hero of someone by disciplining him for fighting for Our Boys? It’s also a verdict: the Prime Minister seeps authority and power each day, and it seems at least one ambitious Cabinet Minister sees her weakness as an opportunity. Being on the way up, or in your pomp, is a wonderful thing in politics – but once you’re deemed to be on the way down all sorts of indignities start to creep up on you.
- Is he right to say “I made her – and I can break her”? There are certainly people in Downing Street and in the Parliamentary Conservative Party who would dispute both parts of the extraordinary sentence which he is reported to have uttered. It’s certainly the case that he played a prominent role in May’s leadership campaign, and that campaign managed to sew up the top job with remarkable gusto. But it would not be unreasonable to suggest May’s years climbing the shadow ministerial ladder and her remarkably lengthy service in the Home Office might have a bit more to do with both her and the advisers who were at her side during those years. Having raised him to Chief Whip and then to Defence Secretary, one might even suggest she made Williamson rather more than the reverse. But to an extent the “making” part of the claim is less important than the “breaking” bit. Williamson probably could precipitate a crisis in her premiership, that might well prove fatal, if he chose to do so. Resigning for the sake of stronger defence is not going to hurt someone’s standing in principle, although it would surely offer an opportunity for those Tory MPs who don’t much like Williamson to put the boot in on him, and a new Prime Minister might not trust the person who brought down their predecessor. But the Defence Secretary is a student of his brief, and surely knows that deterrents work best when they do not have to be used – it’s a risky game, but he is betting the message that Downing Street hears is that peace can be bought at a very reasonable price.