In the Daily Telegraph, Con Coughlin has set out a penetrating indictment of Gavin Williamson’s short tenure at the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Make no mistake, Britain’s military fraternity is deeply unhappy with the strange antics of the Defence Secretary. There are whispers that senior figures want him out, and the quicker the better. Coughlin is an impeccably-connected and well-informed defence editor. His demolition job on Williamson should have the Defence Secretary worried.
In understated prose, Coughlin really does stick the knife in: “Far too many defence secretaries have been lightweights who have failed to make a mark.” He contrasts the real and difficult work of arguing for better defence funding with the “silly publicity-seeking stunts” Williamson thinks of as defence policy. Williamson is “vulnerable to accusations that he is exploiting the good name of the military for his own political ends”.
For example, Coughlin notes: “it was reported yesterday … that Mr Williamson had ordered the MoD to remove all the EU flags from its property”. There is another bizarre story about Williamson and Alsatian dogs saved from being sent to the great regimental kennel in the sky.
The impression is forming at the MoD that the Secretary of State is a bit of a prat.
This is an unacceptable state of affairs. Seriousness is called for. At a time of historic retrenchment from Europe, we face incredibly complicated dilemmas over our security relationship with the Continent. Take one knotty question: do we go in for long-term collaboration with the ever-more centralised European military apparatus, or do we move towards bilateral relations with individual Member States on a short-term basis? It’s hard to see how Williamson’s grandstanding gets us closer to an acceptable answer.
Meanwhile, the May administration seems intent on diminishing our international status. The Prime Minister’s keynote speech at Davos barely registered in the foreign media. Boris Johnson, who is (incredibly) our Foreign Secretary, degrades the office of Palmerston, Castlereagh and Canning: whether it is reciting Kipling in Myanmar, or getting a British citizen more gaol time in Iran, it’s all embarrassing, all humiliation.
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Williamson is worse, and the most vulnerable of ministers. He is losing the military. It’s not like there isn’t the Tory talent there waiting to be promoted – it’s just that Theresa May has chosen, for whatever reason, to ignore it.
Just this week Williamson gave his take on cyber-security: Russian hacking will cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths. Why not more? A hundred, another thousand, then another hundred perhaps. There is a hell of a lot of difference between grandiloquent gesture politics (in the mould of Blair and Macron) – which works when it’s done seriously – and unfocussed, dangerous prattle that simply gives an impression of facile incompetence.
Never mind the sleaze, the sense of stagnation, the vacuum of leadership at Number 10, it is systematic incompetence that will finish off May’s premiership and the Tories if they are not careful. Williamson should be the first to go.