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Gavin Williamson  has no responsibility for the drone which has been sighted hovering over the Tory Conference. So said the Defence Secretary during his interview today with Isabel Oakeshott at a ConHome fringe.

But Williamson is responsible for a astonishing range of other deployments, and faced questions on many of them from Oakeshott, who is about to publish, with Lord Ashcroft, White Flag? An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability, fruit of two years interviewing of people at every level from the most junior to the most senior.

Is Britain a country in retreat? In field after field, Williamson sought to demonstrate this is no longer the case.

So he was recently the first minister from a Nato country to visit the Line of Control, as the front line in eastern Ukraine is known. Williamson remarked that this conflict is “something so forgotten by so many media outlets”.

But as he pointed out, “there are people sadly losing their lives every day”. The Russians have occupied “Crimea and large chunks of eastern Ukraine”, and are using this campaign to test “both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of the West”.

Oakeshott observed that Operation Orbital, under which British troops give training and support to the Ukrainians, “doesn’t get a lot of publicity”. Williamson said the Ukrainians set a very high value on it.

The Defence Secretary conceded that Britain’s confidence “was knocked by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – we became too timid.” But he brushed aside the concern that sending HMS Albion through the South China Sea had upset the Chinese.

He contended that most of the rules which guarantee the right of every navy to sail through international waters “were written by Great Britain”, and it is important to have the self-confidence to uphold these.

Williamson said the recent dispatch of a ship to Australia had been an essential element in gaining a naval shipbuilding contract there, and added: “We haven’t actually had a British naval presence in the Pacific since 2013. That couldn’t be allowed to go on.”

He could cast no light on why this had occurred (or not occurred) and said not just the Australians but the Japanese and the South Koreans are glad to see us back, “standing up for our values”.

Oakeshott pressed him on the continued shrinkage of all three of Britain’s armed services: “You became an MP in 2010 and the 2010 defence cuts come up as a turning point. Do you think in retrospect those defence cuts went too far?”

Williamson refused to be drawn on that question, and pointed out that when Liam Fox became Defence Secretary in 2010, he found “massive over-commitments that just weren’t funded”.

The present Defence Secretary said he had recently visited the Royal Marines at Lympstone, where they showed him a piece of kit they had built themselves for £250, and told him, “if we wanted to buy this it would cost £60,000”.

All the breezy optimism of Williamson could not conceal the fact that the economics of defence procurement remain as difficult at they have always been, and getting the savings which new technologies often offer is remarkably hard.

One project which is in trouble is Galileo, the EU’s satellite navigation system which the continental Europeans no longer wish to build with the UK. Williamson struck a defiant note: “Can they do it without us? No. Can we do it without them? Yes.”

He added that “they are not going to be allowed to use our facilities for a rival project”. He is, however, happy to co-operate with them “as equals”.

Williamson was much criticised for saying in March, when asked how Moscow should respond to the expulsion of its spies after the Salisbury attack, that “Russia should go away and should shut up”.

Oakeshott said a Conservative member had complained to her, when they met while coming through security into the conference centre, that he found it impossible to get this phrase out of his mind.

The member happened to be sitting next to me in the auditorium, and identified himself as Martyn Simpson, the Treasurer of Winchester Conservatives.

The Defence Secretary attempted to defend himself: “One of my great virtues or great faults is that I am blunt…it is in the DNA of every Yorkshireman.”

But as Oakeshott said, the criticism was that he should either have been “a bit ruder” or “a bit more diplomatic”.

Sometimes the Chief Whip – Williamson’s previous position – peeped out from behind the Defence Secretary. “Do feel free to disagree with me,” he told some representatives of the defence industry who were in the audience. “Well actually I don’t really mean that,” he added with a laugh.

As a man with no previous experience of running a department, and no previous career in the armed services, Williamson has had an enormous amount to learn in his 11 months at the Ministry of Defence, but does not seem to have allowed this burden to crush his natural ebullience.

12 comments for: Andrew Gimson’s Conference Sketch: Williamson declares that British forces are no longer in retreat

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