Many Conservative MPs view Gavin Williamson as ‘very political’ © EPA
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When Gavin Williamson was appointed British defence secretary last month, questions were asked about how he would stand up to Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Instead Mr Williamson appears to have started with a rather different target: Philip Hammond, the chancellor.
Tension between the two ministers has broken into the open, creating one of the more remarkable cabinet feuds since Theresa May became prime minister. The Mail on Sunday reported that Mrs May herself had separated Mr Williamson and Mr Hammond during one stand-up row.
The first public sign of friction came a fortnight ago when one of Mr Williamson’s junior defence ministers, Tobias Ellwood, threatened to resign if army numbers were cut below 70,000.
An ally of Mr Hammond was subsequently quoted likening the 41-year-old Mr Williamson to Private Pike, a hapless, inexperienced figure in the second world war comedy Dad’s Army. Days later, in apparent retaliation, a leak from the Ministry of Defence revealed that Mr Hammond had failed to settle the cost of travelling in a Royal Air Force plane. It put the unpaid bill in the context of Treasury demands for money saving.
Mr Hammond, a former defence secretary himself who is known not to suffer fools gladly, exacted his revenge the same day. He told a committee of MPs that Mr Williamson needed “a chance to understand the situation in the Ministry of Defence and to get his head around the defence budget”. As if proving the chancellor’s point, Mr Williamson issued a parliamentary correction on Friday, admitting he has wrongly stated how Britain’s nuclear weapons are funded.
The skirmishes are relevant to Britain’s ambition to remain a global military actor — as well as Mr Williamson’s ambition to rise in the Conservative party.
Although the Conservatives are committed to maintaining military spending at the Nato benchmark of 2 per cent of gross domestic product, large equipment expenditures have strained the budget. The £6bn investment in HMS Queen Elizabeth, a warship commissioned this week, and a second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, as well as the £100m-a-piece F-35 jets that will fly from them, has left the rest of the military facing a £20bn shortfall over the next decade.
Many Tory MPs view Mr Williamson as “very political”. His appointment to the cabinet was greeted by abuse from backbenchers, who saw him as having taken advantage of his role as chief whip to force the resignation of the previous defence secretary, Michael Fallon, over sexual misconduct allegations. But if anything is likely to increase Mr Williamson’s popularity, it is pushing for further defence spending.
Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee, said Mr Williamson had “got off to a good start”, but added “he has got to fight his corner for defence. I only hope he stands firm.”
Military chiefs have also been initially welcoming. “He has shown very quickly that he is his own man,” said one. “But he is also listening. We can’t ask for more than that.”
Although he has not served in the military, Mr Williamson has a brother in the RAF and a brother-in-law in the navy. He himself claims an interest in military history. His aides said that in his first weeks in the role he has made a point of getting around the sprawling MoD, speaking to as many staff as possible, regardless of rank or seniority.
“The prime minister knows there is no one who is more tenacious, more wily or more willing to do absolutely everything that is required to deliver the aims,” he told the Sun in an interview. Crucially, he is yet to sit down with Mr Hammond or Mrs May to discuss the ongoing security and capability review being led by the national security adviser, Mark Sedwill.
All sides have recently sought to downplay the row over Mr Hammond’s RAF bill. “The chancellor regularly flies on the RAF and I am sure will be flying often and frequently in the future,” Mr Williamson told reporters at the commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth, at which Mr Hammond was also present.
At the weekend, the defence secretary flew to Bahrain for a security summit — a chance, possibly, to focus on foreign battles instead of domestic ones.