Unlike the General Election campaign of 2015 when I chose to write a series of four pre-election pieces spread over four weeks, regular readers of ‘Commentary’ will note that this time I decided against doing a repeat performance of that. The trouble with writing election views that get sent to lists the size of those that receive ‘Commentary’ is that you are almost bound to upset someone somewhere. Whilst I know that the previous pieces had gone down very well I have taken the view that such is the potential carnage that could arise from whatever the 2017 General Election decision is, that I am best to follow the old adage that ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.
Difficult though it is, whilst admitting to criticising some of the more dangerous points made by Jeremy Corbyn and that are to be found within the Labour Party manifesto I have this time, for the most part at any rate, stuck to providing a more cross-bencher type view. The Tory campaign has lacked a degree of gravitas and its leader, Theresa May has not come out as well as might have been hoped. Meanwhile, the Lib-Dems appear to have made little progress and the SNP has clearly lost ground although to who we are not yet sure. As to UKIP, well they are a thing from the past.
Last time round during the 2015 General Election campaign I did at least manage one success in the last of my four election pieces by being one of the very few who decided to call a Tory success during the final week of the campaign. I do so again this time round because I believe that in this period of growing uncertainty both economically and from a security perspective, voters will head for what they see as providing the greater level of stability that we will need to go through what we need to do and achieve and of course, through the difficult process of Brexit negotiation.
I can however hardly disagree with those who criticise a lack of charisma in the Tory leadership and the degree of circumspect when it comes to judging individuals such as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. I completely understand reservations that have been expressed but when viewed against Labour in respect of its front bench being fit for purpose there is just no contest – the Tories have in in spades. Brexit Secretary David Davis comes out of the election campaign very well in my view as does the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.
One does though have to admire the way that Jeremy Corbyn has advanced in the eyes of the public and media from a position of what four weeks ago appeared one of hopelessness to one of now being a real contender. Indeed, it is one that could, if all the cards were played right, lead to his finding himself in No 10. Heaven help us if that occurs but remember, this was always going to be an election for the Tories to lose and one for Labour to win.
I was admonished by another friend quite early on in the election campaign for being rather too dismissive of the Liberal Democrats. Yes, theirs is a third way and I would certainly welcome seeing more of their people in the House of Commons. As I have said many times before, good government is made by good opposition. But while I may have shared the view that Britain would be marginally better remaining in the European Union right through the referendum campaign once the decision was made by the electorate to leave the EU I have since chosen to embrace Brexit and work alongside those charged with the very difficult job of making that decision work. All that said, given the amount of time that the BBC has given to the Lib-Dems it would be surprising had they not made some ground in the eyes of the electorate.
Back in the wider world I can hardly disagree with a friend of mine in the US who wrote to me overnight reminding of the real issues that we in Britain face:
“For you in Great Britain” he says, “I think things are not so rosy. The state of your political parties and the democratic apparatus (an effective opposition) has reached a nadir. The country is so far removed from the quality of leadership [that existed] in the 40s, 50s and 60s [that] matters are desperate. You are now undergoing a trial by ordeal [in the form of] terrorism but the most dominating issue is your election that will happen later this week. My heart goes out to the losses of the people mown down or stabbed [in Manchester and London] but reflective and towering leadership must look beyond [these tragic events] and not be distracted. Brexit, is the massive historical question that [it] drowns all other matters. In the UK, you are between an isolationist President (and a naturally isolationist country if truth be told) and are about to cut your ties with the EU. You will be alone and your influence will wane. Let Corbyn get rid of your nuclear deterrent and you should be booted off the Security Council as a permanent member. For the first time in four centuries, you will be without Dominions or the equal association of the EU. You will have no role in the traditional US-European balance; cede it to Germany, tout suite”.
My friend touched on defence and so he should. I have rested my UK defence series for the latter part of the election campaign merely to respect the period of self-inflicted purdah that is generally observed by all government departments during an election campaign. So be it but a few comments here nonetheless:
First, a view from one of my correspondents in response to one of mine that most who concern themselves on matters defence will agree. “It is such a shame” he writes “that the election was called before the Government had replied to the devastating Public Accounts Committee report on the Defence Equipment Plan and before the Defence Select Committee had [completed] reported on defence procurement. Personally” he continues “I remain hopeful that after June 8th defence spending could be increased above current plans. After all, you may well remember the gloomy predictions prior to the 2015 Election that Mr. Cameron would never let the UK commit to defence spending at 2% of GDP and yet it happened. Also demands have changed. We now have two new long term deployments in Estonia and with the UN mission in Southern Sudan. We may well put some more UK troops back into Afghanistan and the emphasis on tackling ungoverned space has grown. Although taken separately these are relatively small deployments they are politically significant and will generate new requirements for training and equipment which may be difficult to refuse”.
I agree and hope that he is right. He goes on to observe “that a newly elected government of whatever political persuasion provides the Chiefs of Staff with the opportunity to reassert their funding requirements and the hope that they are ‘canny and brave enough’ to get our political masters to do the right thing for once”. I am however less convinced that this is what will occur. After all, for the past seven years our defence chiefs have been all but silenced and having been given charge and full responsibility for their budgets given a completely different set of pressures. That said, we are fortunate in having a very strong Chief of the Defence Staff.
So there it is. Today in the aftermath of the London Bridge terrorist attacks Labour is pushing all its efforts on blaming Prime Minister, Theresa May for her previous role as Home Secretary in supposedly cutting the number of police by 20,000 since 2010. Meanwhile, the Tories continue to cast serious doubt on Labour credentials for high office and particularly of Mr. Corbyn’s torrid past as a seeming supporter of the IRA and having consistently failed to previous government plans and measures to better protect the nation from acts of terrorism.
Rather than being the dominant issue it appears that Brexit has been all but side-lined to the middle pages because it remains too much of an unknown. Well, it won’t be two years from now and beyond!
Concerned as I am about the weakened state of defence and of the need to enhance this and all aspects of internal security I am far from being optimistic about the immediate future. The UK has made a decision about the way it wishes to go but it has shown no sign of accepting the immediate consequences. While Labour has nothing to offer but contempt we are left to hope that if Mrs. May pulls off her decision to call an election by winning a sufficiently large enough majority in the House of Commons that she has the strength, will and purpose to turn what looks like a mess into the success that we all want to see.
If I am wrong in my view and if perchance it is Labour that wins the day then I fear that the worst fears of my overnight correspondent will prove to be absolutely right.
CHW (London – 6th June 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785