With Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon having thankfully been left in the position he has held for exactly two years, it was with little surprise although a considerable amount of personal disappointment that I learned on Saturday that Minister of State for Defence Procurement (MinDP) Philip Dunne has been moved from Defence to Health.
No more high level visits to Gulf States to assist our industry selling defence equipment to countries with which Britain has long and well established relationship ties and no more having to cope with industry and military alike looking to government to do more. On behalf of all the many friends that you have deservedly made across all aspects of defence, let me say a very big thank you to Philip Dunne for the excellent work that you have done, for our military, for our industry, for our people and for exports. Let me also say that we wish you all the very best in the more ‘sedate’ if no less politically charged world of the NHS where you are now to be Minister of State in the Department of Health.
Ordinarily one lives with the idea that a minister will only be in any one position for two or maybe three years at most and in that regard, having s been at the MOD for a total of four years, three of which as an Under-Secretary of State for Defence and one year as Minister of State Defence Procurement, we have done very well. .
Very well-liked and respected those of us that have had the pleasure of knowing and working with him appreciate that while he quickly proved an ability to fight the Government corner he was a very good listener. Moreover from the outset Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, understood the concerns that were often raised and he went out of his way to almost always leave a matter better than he found it if he could. Not many ministers manage to do that. He will be sorely missed by military and industry colleagues.
As I write this, unless I have missed it, Mr. Dunne’s replacement at the MOD has yet to be announced. Whoever it is it is unlikely that they will have had any specific knowledge of defence apart from perhaps in their own constituency. Whatever, the person concerned will have a lot to learn in a very short time as there is much going on in defence right now. Indeed, I was rather looking forward to Mr. Dunne winding up the Trident replacement debate in the House of Commons this afternoon. It is also worth mentioning here that amongst junior ministers Penny Mordaunt, the MP for Portsmouth North, has also been moved from Defence to that of Work and Pensions.
As the political face of defence, at least as far as industry is concerned, the relationship, bonds and ties established with the military, industry, defence exports and potential customers for UK defence products highlights the huge importance of ensuring the right person s placed in this particular government slot. Whilst the Secretary of State Defence plays the more senior role the ability to meet with and negotiate deals with foreign governments and administrations, the ability to cope with diverse cultures make the role that Philip Dunne has left behind very different from the rest. Mr. Dunne has worked tirelessly in respect of export support particularly in the Gulf Region and the many excellent relationships he has personally established with potential foreign customers has been invaluable. I would go so far as saying that no Defence Minister has worked so hard in support of defence exports than Philip Dunne has and I do not give such praise without deep knowledge. He has also ensured that following procurement decisions made in SDSR 2015 there would be no unnecessary delays.
Philip Dunne had arrived in defence following a Cameron reshuffle that witnessed departures of Peter Luff and Gerald Howarth. He was a relatively new and unknown quantity and at the time, I remember observing whether, being close to Prime Minister David Cameron and given the sense of mistrust between the former and then Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, whether there were perhaps other reasons behind the appointment.
Philip Dunne had played no part in the dangerous and seriously damaging SDSR 2010 or within the ‘National Security Through Strategy’ strategy paper that followed in February 2012. He was though left to pick up the pieces from that mess and suffice to say that having reached a low point around the time of Mr. Dunne’s defence portfolio appointment, this probably marked an interesting turning point for UK defence.
With SDSR 2010 and the unfortunate follow on strategy attempt played lip service to issues of sovereignty, skills, training and defence exports, it was Philip Dunne who began a process of listening to the calls of industry and military. Whilst it was too late to reverse permanent damage, particular that done to the Royal Navy through the premature and unnecessary withdrawal of the excellent Type 22 ships and that of HMS Ark Royal, and the damage done to air power through the withdrawal of Harrier GR9’s and cuts to the Tornado GR4 force publication of the more better planned and coordinated SDSR 2015 strategy document last year in which the Government set out a different agenda showed that the Government had listened. The military will get some of the much needed new capability it needs from 2019 and importantly, the strategy showed a very different attitude from government in respect of engagement and exports. Enter innovation and the prosperity agenda and recognition I hope that the Government has finally got the message on the importance of defence to the national economy in terms of jobs, engineering and other skills and the importance of supporting exports. Let us hope that HMG means what it says.
As some of my longer term readers well know, I have been engaged supporting defence exports for the best part of thirty years both when I was working in the ‘City’ and as an independent since 2012. In doing so I have been to several counties to provide support to UK government export teams and I have had the pleasure of meeting many ministers too. Imagine my horror when in 2007 having already slashed much of its previous strength Gordon Brown or should I better say, Shriti Vadera, pushed the once fine Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) from MOD responsibility to that of UKTI in the hope that it would wither on the vine. Our French and US competitors could not believe the crassness of such a decision and which would make life much easier for them. Now, following efforts made by Philip Dunne and others it does seem that although it is too late to turn the clock back the combination of the MOD Defence Export Support Group, UKTI DSO and the Defence Growth Partnership progress is again being made. Newly in post, I am very much looking forward to observing how Huw Walters and Peter Watkins play their part in fast jet and complex weapons export sales for which they have responsibility.
Every cloud has a silver lining though and the change of Prime Minister and the major reshuffle of government that followed has led to some others disappearing as well. One of these is Oliver Letwin, long time confident of David Cameron in the Cabinet Office and a man who many of us regard has been the enemy of defence!
CHW (London – 18th July 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
18th July 2016