I see them come and I see them go. The new Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt is actually the fifth to hold the post since 2010. Moreover, she is the twentieth to hold the post since my professional work related to defence first began. That is not a record that either I or anyone else should be proud of!
Whether the hand of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond was behind the sudden if not altogether unexpected sacking of Gavin Williamson I do not know but I have a strong suspicion that this morning both he and Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill will be absolutely delighted to have rid themselves of a Secretary of State for Defence who had dared to challenge their complete authority.
Neither am I about to defend Mr. Williamson or any of his now former team of ministers, civil servants and so-called advisors if they really are guilty but deep down, I do worry that as judge, jury and executioner there is a visible lack of transparency surrounding the so-called evidence. That is not to suggest that I doubt the evidence that points to Gavin Williams being the guilty party but I do question why it was Sir Mark Sedwill, Head of the National Security Council and from whose meeting attended by senior Cabinet Ministers and others the leak occurred, who was also seemingly appointed to be the chief inquisitor of that leak of security related information to the Daily Telegraph reporter?
It is of course the same Sir Mark Sedwill who, over the past two years, has opposed so much of what Mr. Williamson has tried to achieve at the MOD in terms of modernisation. Sir Mark’s high emphasis on cyber and other important aspects in relation to national security matters is highly appreciated as is his forward thinking in relation to long term defence requirements. But his attitude to traditional and legacy defence issues remains a concern.
On a closely related issue a very sensible question posed to me late yesterday was “how can members of our Defence and Security communities have any trust in ministers who have NO security clearances, who focus on self rather than team, who fabricate stories to cover their own mal-practice, who seek to undermine the sanctity of the Security Council and who, through personal choice, have selected the future structure of military command not on meritocracy but on their perception of self-need”?
In doing so he was referring to David Cameron and Gavin Williamson in terms of choice of future leaders, but at the same time on EVERY minister with regard to security clearance. As he said, “the issue here is that ministers who sit on the Security Council hold the safety of our nation in their hands; there should be a test and examination of their trustworthiness before they can be deemed fit to hold such office”.
I absolutely agree that all senior ministers and indeed junior minister working in department where national interest issues may be prominent should be security cleared. Indeed, I would add that it would be so much better if those appointed to high office not only had security clearance but also relevant experience that would enable them to do the job in the manner in which it needs to be done and importantly, hold the respect of those who work either in the department or, as in the case of defence, within the military.
As to Gavin Williamson who it has to be said was not everyone’s cup of tea and proved himself to be short of knowledge when it came to ‘diplomacy’ we should not forget that he is the first secretary of State for Defence that was prepared to fight the Treasury and Cabinet Office. For that alone he deserves respect.
As Secretary of State for Defence the best thing one can say about Gavin Williamson was that he was tolerated. We all knew that he had serious limitations in respect of knowledge and that his communications skills left much to be desired. We knew also that he was extremely ambitious politically and that he saw Defence as a way to further his career to the top of his political party. That dream has now been quashed and no matter whether he or a member of his team are guilty of the act of leaking information I suspect that this particular piece of baggage will not only haunt him for years to come but also ruin his political career.
The question of whether there should be a police enquiry, one that could in theory could equally find that Mr. Williamson was not the guilty person is fraught with difficulty. Could we even dare trust the police to do a satisfactory job? I am not yet sure what the answer to that is but what I do except is that if Prime Minister Theresa May believes that she has sufficient evidence to prove that Mr. Williamson was guilty then, because this was from a National Security Council meeting as opposed to a Cabinet Meeting she has in my view done absolutely the right thing. If, however she has been persuaded to believe that Mr. Williamson is the guilty party by her Chancellor, a man who is himself perhaps one of the biggest leakers of information from Cabinet, or merely convinced by Sir Mark Sedwill, then this will come back to haunt her.
Was Gavin Williamson a good Secretary of State for Defence? Well, he was certainly not the worst I have known – far from it – but it says rather a lot that these days the Secretary of State for Defence might just as well be someone whose background was stacking shelves in Tesco’s! Over the years I have become increasingly appalled as to the standard of choice and lack of experience and sometimes, lack of wisdom of those bunged into the defence post by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May. How on earth do the military cope!
Now we have Penny Mordaunt in the most senior UK defence post. As the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth at least she comes to the job knowing what the Royal Navy does and to be fair, she was for a time Minister of State for the Armed Forces under David Cameron. In this case I will have no concern in relation to her lacking necessary skills in diplomacy but to pick up this job takes time and she will have to live with Gavin Williamson political and Military appointees for the period that she is in post. I have met her previously and I wish her well, particularly when it comes to battling for defence in the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.
As I will, Penny Mordaunt will most no doubt be at Westminster Abbey tomorrow for the commemoration service marking 50 years of Continuous at Sea Nuclear Deterrence. My advice to her for what it is worth is that within days she hops on a plane to the US to provide reassurance of defence strategy consistency. Our US allies more than deserve that.
That Ms. Mordaunt is also to retain responsibility for women and equalities is a concern. Defence is a full-time job and deserves full time attention of its Secretary of State. Gordon Brown tried that with his appointment of Des Browne as Secretary of State for Defence and also Scottish Secretary at the same time. It was a decision that didn’t work well for defence!
Will defence be a beneficiary of the change of its Secretary of State from Gavin Williamson to Penny Mordaunt? With HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office pulling an ever-increasing number of chords and with the Comprehensive Spending Review looming ever larger on the horizon I fear that the answer is probably no. That said it is pleasing that Tobias Ellwood remains as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defence and also that there is no change in Stuart Andrew as Minster Defence Procurement. They should both be able to provide Secretary of State with the support that she needs in coming to terms with her new and very important brief.
(Note: On the new system I am struggling a little to ensure that when I cut and paste from Word onto the email that I send out and that you receive the paragraphs breaks that I have included appear on the email as well. If I have not already achieved this yet please bear with me whilst I sort this out!)
CHW (London – 2nd May 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785