At last, the UK has a Prime Minister who I believe can lead us through what will undoubtedly be very difficult times ahead. Intelligent, experienced, an excellent communicator, a man who genuinely believes that integrity, professionalism and accountability are prerequisites of good government, I and no doubt many others reading this share a view that we now have a prime minister who is not only fit for purpose but one who is best suited to lead us through the next two difficult years.
It was interesting that Rishi Sunak chose to walk into 10 Downing Street yesterday afternoon without any supporting MP’s or family. His short address was as chilling as it was realistic and, I believe, honest about the many and various problems that we face. And he was, again in my opinion, absolutely right to head off any suggestion that he might call a General Election during the two years and three months that he has before one must be called.
So as one job, putting a man who in my view has all the qualities necessary to be prime minister despite having only been seven years an MP end, another very much harder one begins. If Rishi Sunak is, as I have implied, someone who we can look up to so it is that his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, son of the late Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt and who had an illustrious 35 year career in the Royal Navy until he retired in 1987, is leading the role to provide the UK with the stability to move forward in this uneasy post Brexit world and that is now suffering the consequences of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. I wish him well and have no doubts as to his being the right choice of Chancellor for the times that we now live in and that require a balance to be found between what we borrow, what we can afford and what the State should fund.
To that end and having been Chancellor through the regrettable and some would argue, unnecessary expense of Covid, Rishi Sunak made no apology for the difficulties that lie ahead and how these will be faced. Unlike his immediate predecessors who promised much that could never reasonably be achieved, Sunak’s honesty declaring the current situation and poor state of the economy came with no pretence, no false promises, no unnecessary attempts to promise what cannot be delivered and no pre-planned attempt at PR provides me with no doubts that the UK has a safe pair of hands on the tiller.
Perhaps the first example of that is the announcement this morning that the planned economic statement from Jeremy Hunt and which had been due to be made on Monday 31st October in order to fully set out the UK’s short and medium term debt plan has perfectly sensibly been pushed back two weeks by Rishi Sunak in order to allow full consideration by the new Government and the availability of the most accurate and up to date economic forecasts and facts from the OBR to be fully considered. In addition, the economic plan announcement has been upgraded to a full Autumn Statement allowing some wider policy decisions to perhaps also be announced.
As to his choice of the twenty or so that will sit around the Cabinet, all that I can say is that at long last there appears to be a very visible level of experience within most of those he has chosen. If I have any particular disappointments, it is the loss of Anne Marie Trevelyan from the Cabinet, someone who I personally believe still has much to offer and was always popular within the various government departments that she worked. That she was an ardent supporter of Boris Johnson is, as far as I am concerned now, history and I hope that she is not left on the side-lines for long.
The House of Commons will be a better place for what took place yesterday and while one cannot rule out the possibility of internal squabbles re-emerging, I take the view that with the vast majority of MP’s on-side of Rishi Sunak we will not suffer repeats of the ignominies witnessed during Boris Johnson’s premiership. Whether Johnson will be a thorn in the side of the Sunak led Government remains to be seen but frankly I doubt it. He may well of course harbour future ambitions but given his low popularity amongst Tory MP’s and the fact that his parliamentary seat in Uxbridge is marginal to say the least, it may well be that a position in respect of his continuing to support what the UK and others are doing and achieving in Ukraine may be the tactical answer to problem that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
All of which leads me to defence and where, Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace remains in position. From the point of consistency leaving Wallace in position was and is undoubtedly sensible. That said, quite how without angering the Treasury, Wallace will continue to maintain that more needs to be spent on defence – however absolutely right and true this may be – remains to be seen.
Whether I like it or not, the rather stupid suggestion that the UK would by 2030 be spending 3% of GDP on defence – a 60% rise on current levels – is now to be classed as merely an ambition at best. I am sure that Wallace knows all too well that and if he is to remain in position and maybe achieve his ultimate ambition of perhaps becoming the next Head of Nato that he must somehow bring himself to towing the line whilst presenting a case for defence spending to rise. I am supportive and wish him well in that objective but up against a Chancellor, Prime Minister, Treasury and Cabinet Office that will do all they can to scupper defence spend ambitions, it will be interesting to observe how the future pans out.
Defence spending is one issue – raising the absolute priority of defence within government is another. One repeats continually that the level of threat has increased and yet, year by year defence has been allowed to slip further down the list of government priorities. If Wallace can succeed where others have failed in raising the profile of defence and the priority it deserves, he will have done well but I am not raising my hopes.
There is of course much work still left to do to make defence work better for the UK taxpayer. Arguably, the whole system of how defence is governed and managed by the MOD needs to be seriously reviewed and I include in that how those that carry the overall responsibility for how defence operation is managed are chosen. We need honesty and integrity not only from government but we also need those within the military and who lead their people in all three of our armed forces and at the top of defence to stand up for their force and their people. We do not need to be told all is well when it clearly is far from well. If we are short of capacity and equipment & manpower capability, we need the MOD and those charged with the responsibility of defence to be completely honest and tell us how it is rather than being forced by their political masters to say the opposite.
Our military today is struggling and as I walked from the Houses of Parliament where I had spent three very interesting hours yesterday, up through Whitehall before stopping a while outside the Ministry of Defence ,I found myself looking up directly at the statue of Field Marshal, Viscount Alanbrooke under which is written ‘Master of Strategy’. Where I wondered are the masters of strategy today in the Ministry of Defence, the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force? Sadly, I can find no answer to that vexing question and be in no doubt that in these very uncertain times that we live in, I am very saddened about that.
Nevertheless, I will as always do my very best to keep you fully informed!
CHW (London – 26th October 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785