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6 December 2017

Three reasons defence cuts could spell trouble for Philip Hammond

Gavin Williamson has something to prove and his juniors have nothing to lose.

By Stephen Bush

There’s a fun but important bit of Whitehall argy-bargy in the Times today: Philip Hammond has had his flight rights with the Royal Air Force revoked as the Treasury has yet to reimburse the Ministry of Defence for the cost of his chartered flights on ministerial business.

Although the amount of money is trivial as far as government spending goes, the row has made the papers because the MOD and the Treasury are squaring off over planned cuts to defence spending, which has already been heavily reduced since the Conservatives first came to power.

Philip Hammond waited for a week before he allowed himself to celebrate that his second Budget had been well-received, but he may have cheered too early. Defence spending has the potential to tip his budget into crisis, for three reasons.

The first is obvious: the MOD, like all of the spending departments, has shouldered heavy reductions in its budget since 2010.

The second is that Gavin Williamson, the new Defence Secretary, has something to prove. His promotion from his role as Chief Whip to that of Defence Secretary raised Tory eyebrows.  The job is the dream appointment for many Conservative MPs – it occupies a similar position in the Tory firmament that Education, Health and International Development do for Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs – and Williamson has never been a junior minister in any department, let alone the dream posting of Defence. Nor can he fall back on a previous career in the Army or the Navy.

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Adding to the annoyance, he leapfrogged several eminently qualified ministers – Tobias Ellwood, Ben Wallace and Penny Mordaunt, now International Development Secretary – which only added to the irritation and the sense he was promoted due to his influence over Theresa May.

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Standing up for the MOD and the armed forces against the Treasury’s axe is a good way for Williamson to demonstrate his readiness for the job.

Promoting Williamson also adds to the sense that some junior ministers will have that they have no hope of being promoted to full Cabinet rank, so they may as well exit the scene in a manner of their choosing on an issue they really care about.

Just as  it took a while for cuts to tax credits to cause the government strife – although in that case Chris Leslie, then shadow chancellor, pointed out the potential for them to cause hardship outside of Westminster and political upheaval ins ide of it immediately after George Osborne had finished speaking  – it may be that leaving defence out of the extra £23bn of spending in his budget comes back to haunt Philip Hammond.