Gavin Williamson’s threat to Theresa May is more dangerous than it looks

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The divisive Defence Secretary might not profit from it, but May allies fear defence rows have the potential to destabilise the Prime Minister.

Front pages hung on a demand from Gavin Williamson for more cash for the military are nothing new. The Defence Secretary has been locked in a vicious briefing war with Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, to that effect since the moment he was appointed to the cabinet. Today's Mail on Sunday splash marks an escalation of his campaign: for the first time, Theresa May is the target of his righteous indignation.

The paper reports that Williamson has demanded an extra £20 billion in funding for the armed forces – the same amount as that promised by the Prime Minister for the NHS last week – and threatened to corral Tory backbenchers into voting down the next budget should May fail to acquiesce. “I made her – and I can break her,” the Defence Secretary is reported to have told a group of military leaders. 

Williamson's colleagues are wearily familiar with this sort of posturing. Some of them, to coin a phrase, would rather he shut up and went away. The call is unlikely to be heeded by the Chancellor, whose allies popularised the devastating "Private Pike" sobriquet that haunts the boyish defence secretary at Westminster. Williamson's hawkishness on defence is exceeded by the Chancellor's on fiscal policy, and the message to ministers after the announcement of last week's new NHS funding is that there is no money for anything else. (Liz Truss, his deputy, tells today'Sunday Telegraph that ministers should realise the demanding more money for their departments is “not macho”, in a thinly-veiled attack on Williamson.)

Nor is it a game-changer as far as his unsubtle campaign for the Tory leadership is concerned. Williamson is playing his political hits with characteristic tunelessness. For a majority of Conservative MPs – the electorate who will ultimately determine the field for the next contest – he is well behind Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and others in the race to succeed May, and he will struggle to change that dynamic.

All of this is true. But there is a but, and it is bigger than you might think. There is a popular conception that Williamson is a gormless neophyte and Francis Urqhuart wannabe, who speaks to nothing but an imaginary camera and his own ambition. Plenty of Tories agree but on this cause he is not without allies. 

There is a lot of inchoate anger on the Tory backbenches about military issues, be it cuts to funding or the prosecution of veterans for historic offences committed in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Tart questions on the latter row are heard from Tory MPs at PMQs every week, with punchier quotes to be found in the tabloids most days.

One Whitehall source told me recently that they worried that issues such as these, rather than Brexit, are more likely to derail May's premiership. They are as existential to many Tory MPs as the NHS and education are to their Labour colleagues. In this respect it doesn't matter that Williamson's constituency is limited to the “up to 20¨ of his colleagues cited by the Mail on Sunday – such a number is more than big enough to endanger a minority government.

Unlike the band of relatively demure former ministers who have blanched from rebelling on Brexit legislation, Tories in government worry that the “headbangers” and ex-military Tories supportive of Williamson's gung-ho rhetoric won't heed attempts to bring them to heel with reason or compromise. 

Williamson might not be the one to profit from it, but there is every chance a row over the armed forces and defence policy could seriously destabilise May. Their ire might previously have been directed at the Chancellor, who is a lightning rod for backbench discontent on other issues too. But in taking political ownership of increased funding for the NHS – and using the illusory Brexit dividend to justify it – May has dragged herself into this row and future ones like it. With a precedent set, other ministers will fancy their chances too.

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