Profile: Ben Wallace, one of Johnson’s Long Marchers, and a traditional but also irreverent Defence Secretary

26 Jan

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, is not just another cautious career politician who has risen by taking immense pains never to say or do anything interesting.

He might, it is true, be mistaken at first glance for that type. He is capable, when he puts his mind to it, of being as dull as any of his Cabinet colleagues.

The last two Defence Secretaries, Penny Mordaunt (May to July 2019) and Gavin Williamson (November 2017 to May 2019), often courted publicity.

Wallace, on the whole, does not. He might pass, in his Brigade tie, for a quiet clubman, looking somewhat older than his 50 years, a bit of an anachronism and most likely a bore.

His friends insist this is quite wrong: “He’s great company. A good mimic. He sends people up. He sends deeply inappropriate memes on WhatsApp. I could tell you about the time he was serving in Northern Ireland…”

But in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this exploit is like “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”.

Wallace’s irreverence is perhaps one of the things that in 2014 led him to conclude, and tell his fellow Lancashire MP Jake Berry, that when there was a vacancy, Boris Johnson should become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

This was not, at the time, a fashionable opinion. Johnson was not even in Parliament, many Conservative MPs distrusted him, and the party machine was firmly in the hands of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Wallace and Berry are Long Marchers, who seemed to have nothing much to hope for under Cameron, and supported Johnson well before victory seemed within the latter’s grasp.

Berry told ConHome:

“Both of us understood as northern MPs what it takes to win the North as Conservatives. We always believed Boris Johnson was the person who could win in the North – who could get under the skin of northern voters in the way that David Cameron couldn’t.”

Irreverence can be a valuable quality, for one way Johnson reaches northern voters is by refusing to take pious London commentators as seriously as those commentators take themselves.

Wallace told Berry he would go and see Johnson, let him know of their support, and offer to help him to find a seat in London for the 2015 general election.

They also began, with others including Nigel Adams and Amanda Milling, to hold curry evenings at Johnson’s house in Islington so he could meet and get to know Conservative MPs.

Johnson came back into the Commons in 2015 as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and took time to find his feet. Early the following year, when the EU Referendum campaign was about to start and Johnson was wavering between Leave and Remain, Wallace urged him in emphatic terms to back Remain, and told him that siding with Leave would mean being allied with such “clowns” as Nigel Farage, and would lead to the loss of 30 parliamentary votes in any future leadership campaign.

Loyalty in Wallace’s book means telling your leader, in private, when you think he is being a damn fool. Johnson rejected the advice, led Leave to an unexpected victory, and became, after Cameron’s breakfast-time resignation, front-runner to be the next Prime Minister.

The referendum victors were exhausted, which is one reason why they were not thinking straight. Michael Gove told Johnson he would support him for the leadership, and Johnson allowed his campaign, run by Wallace and by Lynton Crosby, to be more or less taken over by the Gove team.

A week after the referendum, on the morning of Thursday 30th June 2016, Gove unexpectedly announced that he was running himself for the leadership, whereupon Johnson threw in his hand.

Wallace proceeded, a few days later, to write a piece for The Daily Telegraph, in which he remarked:

“Just like the operational tours I used to deploy on in the Army, you learn a lot during the contest. You learn who to trust, you learn who is honourable and you learn who your friends are. Ultimately what matters in a campaign is not who you vote for, but how you conduct yourself – because we need a functioning party after the event.”

He offered this account of recent developments:

“When on Thursday morning, just before 9am, I got a call from a journalist asking me if it was true Michael Gove was deserting Boris, I denied it. It couldn’t have been true. Only the night before we had confirmed 97 names of supporters, and I knew of three more coming over that day. Michael hadn’t said anything or hinted at any frustrations over the previous four days so I presumed it was just another story from the ‘rumour mill’ that accompanies leadership campaigns.

“I walked round the corner to see Lynton Crosby, ashen white, taking a call from someone who turned out to be Michael Gove. ‘He has done the dirty on us, mate,’ were the words I remember most afterwards.”

In Wallace’s view, this made Gove – married to Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail – unfit for Number Ten:

“One of the most privileged parts of my job as a Northern Ireland minister is to work alongside members of MI5 and the police. They work, every day, anonymously, to keep us safe. In their world loose talk costs lives. It does in a prime minister’s world too. UK citizens deserve to know that when they go to sleep at night their secrets and their nation’s secrets aren’t shared in the newspaper column of the prime minister’s wife the next day, or traded away with newspaper proprietors over fine wine.

“I always told Boris we needed to show that we had support from across the political spectrum. Vote Boris was not to be a takeover by Vote Leave, nor was it to be about an inner circle. But Michael thought otherwise.

“He already had Dominic Cummings (his former special adviser, who has the same effect on MPs as arsenic) making plans for who and how to run No 10.

“Whoever leads the Conservative Party needs to be trustworthy. We have a divided country and a divided parliamentary party. An untrustworthy ‘Brexiteer’ is no different from an untrustworthy ‘Remainer’. Governing is a serious business. It is not a game, nor is it a role play of House of Cards.

“Boris is many things, but nasty he is not. I remember when he made his decision to back Brexit I pleaded with him not to. I said it would lose him the leadership. But he said ‘sovereignty mattered more than anything’. At the time David Cameron was negotiating hard in Brussels. Boris agreed it would be dishonourable to pull the rug from under the PM as he sat at dinner with EU leaders trying to get the best for the UK. So he waited till he was back. Gove didn’t. That says it all.”

After the article appeared, Crosby sent Wallace a message: “Mate, you don’t miss.”

The piece is not one that anyone who read PPE at Oxford would be likely to have written. It indicates a different scale of values; a different idea of loyalty.

Wallace is unusual among modern Cabinet ministers, for he did not go to university. On leaving Millfield School, he spent a short time as a ski instructor at the Austrian National Ski School in Alpbach, before proceeding to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

At school, “a very old colonel, a Scotsman, who had been in the Royal Scots Greys” suggested to him and others that they join the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

But at Sandhurst, “all the college adjutants, nearly all the colour sergeants, and all the company sergeant majors were Guardsmen”, and Wallace decided instead to join the Scots Guards, with whom he served from 1991-98, being mentioned in dispatches in 1992 for leading a patrol which captured an IRA active service unit.

He was on duty the night the Princess of Wales died, and was the Guardsman sent over to retrieve her body.

On leaving the Scots Guards with the rank of captain, Wallace entered Conservative politics, and was elected in 1999 as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, where he served a single term.

He has described, somewhat indiscreetly, how the Queen might have played a part in his selection as a candidate. Scotland on Sunday nicknamed him Captain Fantastic, and convivial Scottish journalists claim in jest to have invented him.

In 2003, he moved to Lancashire, was returned in 2005 as the MP for Lancaster and Wyre, and since 2010 has sat for Wyre and Preston North.

This does not mean he has left his regiment behind. His Senior Parliamentary Assistant in the constituency is Alf Clempson, a former Warrant Officer in the Scots Guards, Wallace’s Platoon Sergeant in F Company, applying “the same Sergeants’ Mess and Household Division discipline to his job” now as he did then, while serving also as a Lancashire County Councillor.

In 2005, at the start of his maiden speech in the Commons, Wallace emitted another flash of feeling which would not probably have occurred to a PPE graduate:

“Yesterday, while I was waiting all day to be called, it struck me that a maiden speech is a bit like a first bungee jump, leap from an aeroplane or chance to walk a girl home—while one is waiting, one does not know whether one will get one’s chance; while one is waiting for the chance, one is not sure whether one has done the right thing.”

From 2010-14 Wallace served a convivial apprenticeship as PPS to Ken Clarke, followed by a year in the Whips’ Office and a year as a junior Northern Ireland minister.

In 2016 Theresa May, who had raised Johnson to the Foreign Office, sent Wallace to be Security Minister in the Home Office, where he spent three onerous years preserving a perfect discretion about the horrible matters with which he had to deal.

In the summer of 2019, Johnson’s second leadership campaign was flooded with ambitious MPs rushing to join the winning side, but Wallace the Long Marcher, though this time rather more backward in coming forward, was rewarded with the post of Defence Secretary.

In February 2020, when the Cabinet was reshuffled, “everyone was adamant,” an insider relates, “that Wallace should be sacked, but Johnson hunched his shoulders and insisted on keeping him.”

In an interview last October with ConservativeHome, Wallace expressed pride in the swift response of the armed forces when called on by the civil power to help deal with the pandemic.

The Defence Secretary demonstrated his ability to be not especially interesting when he chooses, but grew more animated at the end of the interview as he explained that he had criticised Labour for waging “unlawful wars” because those who served in those conflicts had found themselves exposed, long afterwards, to vexatious and unreasonable charges, for which the Government which had sent them to war without taking proper precautions against such proceedings must bear the ultimate responsibility.

Wallace does not bring to his post a capacity for airy theorising. He is a pragmatist, who in his speeches draws lessons from his own experience as a junior officer, which senior officers do not always regard as strictly relevant.

Mark Francois, a member of the Defence Select Committee, reckons Wallace is doing a good job. He says he brings continuity to a role which has had six occupants since 2010; has the ear of the Prime Minister; has the moral courage to give Johnson unwelcome advice (for example to keep the promise to protect Northern Ireland veterans against vexatious claims); and has recently obtained an excellent financial settlement from the Treasury.

Francois added that Wallace will have to make sure the extra money is not frittered away, as can so easily happen when long-term procurement programmes are based on absurdly optimistic assumptions.

Johnson is said to have promised to keep Wallace at the Ministry of Defence, charged with ensuring the money is properly spent, though both of them also hope that by spending considerable amounts of it in Scotland, the Union will be strengthened, and Johnson has high hopes for the future of British shipbuilding.

Conservative Party members think highly of Wallace, who is currently fourth in this site’s Cabinet league table.

Wallace has remarked that the Officer’ Messes of his youth were a mixture of “thrusters, characters, dreamers, and drifters…and in time of war you never know which is the one that pulls you out of trouble and is the great leader”.

In politics, as in war, one can never be sure who is going to come good, and who will turn out to be a dead loss. But Johnson is in some ways a more traditional, and pragmatic, Prime Minister than his critics are willing to recognise.

And in Wallace, he has appointed a traditional, and pragmatic, Defence Secretary, with “strange though quite well hidden qualities of empathy”, as one observer puts it, and deep feelings which only bubble to the surface at rare intervals.

Does cross-party support for the Mali mission signal a new consensus on deploying troops overseas?

11 Dec

Earlier this month John Healey, the Shadow Defence Secretary, wrote for this site demanding that the Government explain to Parliament its reasons for deploying 300 British troops to Mali as part of the ongoing United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

By good fortune, an official announcement about the decision was forthcoming the same day:

“300 UK troops have arrived in Mali as part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, primarily drawn from the Light Dragoons alongside the Royal Anglian Regiment and supported by specialist trades from across the Armed Forces. The UK Task Force will provide a highly specialised reconnaissance capability, conducting patrols to gather intelligence and engage with the local population to help the UN respond to threats from violent extremism, and weak governance.”

In numbers terms this is a relatively small part of the 14,000-strong UN operation, although it is apparently providing a critical capability. Nor are the dragoons the first British troops on the ground in the Sahel. James Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, pointed out in his statement to the House of Commons that we are also providing helicopter support to Operation Barkhane, the separate (and at over personnel, very substantial) French operation in the country.

But it is still significant. Heappey told MPs that “it is important to stress that deploying to MINUSMA does not come without risk”, and Healey that “Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face”. There is a real danger of British casualties from this deployment, and it marks the first time since Iraq that the UK has committed ‘boots on the ground’ (except for special forces) to a new theatre.

Does this reflect a slow rebuilding of cross-party political will to deploy the Armed Forces? David Cameron tried to do so in Syria, but was prevented by Ed Miliband’s gamesmanship. Perhaps it is in recognition of the consequences of that decision that Healey stresses Labour’s recognition of the interwoven humanitarian, development, and security cases for deploying now.

John Healey: Ministers have a democratic duty to explain the role of British combat troops in Mali

3 Dec

John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, and MP for Wentworth and Dearne.

This month more than 250 British troops will begin a three-year deployment with the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. This is described by the UN as its ‘most dangerous mission’, with 227 personnel killed since 2013.

With the growth of Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, the Sahel is now one of the most unstable regions of the world. The UK will be filling a ‘capability gap’ in the UN force by providing soldiers who are specialist in long-range reconnaissance. Combat and casualties can be expected.

Since 2018 the UK has provided RAF logistical support to the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane, with three Chinook helicopters and non-combat ground crew, though the MoD stress the new UN deployment is separate from the French mission.

Despite committing British combat troops into a conflict zone, the Defence Secretary has felt no duty to report on this directly to Parliament. The deployment this month was confirmed in an MoD press release during the summer recess.

Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face. The public have a right to expect Ministers to be more open too.

As a UN P5 Security Council member, Britain has an overdue duty to support the 15,000-strong UN mission in Mali, which was first established in 2013, and which the UN Secretary General says plays “a fundamental political and security role”.

There is significant humanitarian interest in Mali, with the UN estimating 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and over a quarter of a million people internally displaced.

There is significant development interest in Mali, with 78 per cent of the population living in poverty, 39 per cent of primary age children not in school and the country ranking 184 out of 188 on the UN human development index.

Above all, there is significant security interest in Mali, with al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups active in the region which the Government say have a terrorist reach beyond Africa into Europe.

In these circumstances, the questions about British troops in Mali abound. What role will they play? How will they contribute to the UN mandate? What risks do they face? How does this deployment contribute to the UK’s new strategic approach to sub-Saharan Africa? What are the criteria for a successful mission and bringing Britain’s troops home again?

The practice of accountability to the public via Parliament is decaying under this Government but it should remain a basic principle that no Defence Secretary commits British troops into a conflict zone before a full statement in the Commons so that MPs can secure answers to concerns about the mission and the service personnel.

Henry Smith: The defence sector has a vital role to play in levelling up – but needs Treasury support

28 Nov

Henry Smith is the Member of Parliament for Crawley.

In Crawley, where the aerospace sector is a significant local employer, we have been hit hard by the impact of Covid-19. This will be an extremely challenging time for individuals and families in my constituency and we must look to replace those jobs quickly.

I believe that this recovery can, and should, be technology-led and that one of the Government departments with the biggest budgets – the Ministry of Defence – could be at the heart of it. With the Integrated Review due to report soon, it is important that the UK takes this opportunity to adapt to an environment where technology, science and data are at the centre of delivering our global ambitions.

I agree with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, that investing in cyber, space, electronic warfare, AI, robotics and autonomy is vital for our future prosperity and security. These kinds of technologies will be critical in building not only national resilience for the UK but a resilient digitally enabled economy.

However, in order to make the Integrated Review effective and the long-term platform on which to build the nation’s security, it must be accompanied by a multi-year spending settlement.

I appreciate that Rishi Sunak needs to focus on the present. But in an industry where contracts are for tens of years and companies make decisions on R&D investment with a long-term view, the absence of a multi-year settlement adds to uncertainty, causes delays in programme decisions, and makes the UK less attractive to large defence companies for investment.

British national security cannot be separated from the strength of our onshore defence and technology base, which increasingly that includes cyber and digital. The ability to rapidly respond to changing threats or shifts in international dynamics is critical. By developing our industry at home, we are able to make decisions to prioritise our values and protect our security, as the Government rightly did with the Huawei/5G decision.

As we have seen throughout this pandemic, our economic and social lives have been shifted online and the importance of being able to have trust in the systems we use, – that our data is secure, that a website is legitimate – can scarcely be overstated. Given the importance of the digital economy, digital trust must now be considered a foundation for national security; we should consider an intrinsic aspect of our Critical National Infrastructure.

Having world leading capabilities that are created and developed in Britain can also support our trade ambitions and export strength. Export sales can help spread the costs of design and production, potentially bringing down the cost of capabilities for the Armed Forces and saving taxpayers’ money. The reputation of the British military is such that when they can be cited as a reference user it adds significant weight to an export campaign.

In order to maximise the UK-wide benefit, the Government must back our industry by choosing to place a high weighting on the positive economic and employment impacts for Britain when making contract decisions, particularly when taxpayer money has been invested in the development of key technologies.

Brexit represents a chance to level the playing field for our defence industry, having previously been hampered by EU competition laws that were interpreted differently across the different states. The Ministry of Defence must be serious about using criteria to make contract decisions that take into account the impact on British jobs. With a large budget and significant annual capital spending, the MoD can be a vital tool in supporting the economic resilience of the nation as well as our security in the more traditional terms. This is something we have seen in countries across the world as they respond to Covid-19 including the US, France, Germany, and Australia.

Like in Crawley, colleagues from many parts of the nation, from Broughton, Brough, and Barrow, will also know benefits of big manufacturers supporting both employment in their area and a national supply chain. By giving the MoD a multi-year settlement, the Government will be recognising the value that defence spending brings to the national and – crucially – local economies.

We must be thinking about the long-term future of our manufacturing towns, and the Government needs to demonstrate their commitment by giving industry the certainty it needs to level up the economy across our United Kingdom.

Bob Seely: Lessons from the Cummings era about leadership, decentralisation, localism – and making more use of MPs

15 Nov

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

Dominic Cummings has gone, but his strengths – and weaknesses – have lessons for us, and his departure still leaves Britain’s government in need of reform.

First, in fairness to Cummings, we need creative thinkers in politics, and he was clearly is as allergic to waffle as he was to a decent dress sense. However, being a free thinker is not the same as being a leader. Every organisation needs genuinely creative thinkers like Cummings to challenge group-think and, as the cliché puts it, think outside the box.

You do not, however, put them in charge because, unless they are there to drive a single issue for a specific amount of time, chaos ensues. Iconocasts question and challenge – and sometimes trash things – but they rarely build.

Cummings’ ability to diagnosis a problem was impressive, but his ability to drive solutions was flawed.

Two Armed Forces comparisons here are useful.

Cummings saw through the chaff to a single core idea. Broadly speaking, in military theory this is called “understanding the centre of gravity”. It’s rare to see it convincingly reduced to a single idea, without the laziness of adding the ballast of supporting points. The Brexit referendum, the levelling up agenda, the need to use data better, all showed that Cummings had the ability to understand clearly a problem: revolutionaries often do.

But whilst Cummings had a rare clarity of thinking, the evidence suggests he wasn’t so good at implementing it. I wonder if that was difficulty in delegating, and a need to keep control – if so, this issue goes much wider than Cummings.

The trend towards centralisation is actively damaging Government. Add our growing culture of risk-aversion, as well as the human rights legal industry, and you have some understanding why centralised Government is slow and cumbersome and its reform is difficult.

Compare this situation with best practise decision-making in the Armed Forces – which is called “mission command”.

Mission command is the combining of centralised intent with decentralised command; it’s when generals give orders to achieve an objective, but the responsibility for delivering that intent is pushed as far down the command chain as possible.

It is the system which gives young men and woman significant responsibility very early in the military careers, and is perhaps the key reason why they stand out so much from their civilian peers. They have responsibly forced on them.

We need such a culture of decentralised responsibility in the civil service and in local government. In which central government sets a broad agenda, but the responsibility for delivering it is pushed down to the lowest possible level, with freedoms to experiment to provide the best way forward.

Revolutionaries want centralised states because they want to drive change, but this is rarely successful. In non-democracies, many centralised revolutions produced catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century. And in democracies, over-centralisation has inhibited reform and good government.

For example, Labour’s obsessions with a top-down, targets-driven culture resulted in NHS managers prioritising treatment based on targets, not need: people died as a result. Another example – Germany’s decentralised health and public health system has coped with Covid-19 much better than ours.

In Westminster, the recent sucking-away of political influence from MPs has caused friction and frustration. Disdain has been accompanied by mistakes: not a good combination. Downing Street now has a chance to reset relationship with MPs who feel marginalised over a variety of issues, including the disastrous housing algorithm and the potentially destructive planning changes. MPs need to be able to contribute to policy. Ministers need to have power and agency in their own right, not just be cyphers.

However, for successful reform to happen, we need a change of culture, not just a change of names. Second, ‘taking back control’ must now mean finding ways to decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster. Government, working with MPs must drive the intent, but decentralised command must give more power and flexibility for local leaders and local councils to drive local initiatives, the best of which we could all learn from.

Shaun Bailey: Let us remember the sacrifices made from across the Commonwealth, for our freedom

9 Nov

Shaun Bailey is a member of the London Assembly and the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

Everything about Remembrance Sunday was a little bit different this year. Crowds were smaller. Events were socially distanced. The trials of the last few months hovered at the back of our minds.

But that doesn’t mean the day itself was any less meaningful. In fact, when the country fell silent and the bells started to toll, I believe there was an even greater depth of emotion. It was a chance to remind ourselves that the sacrifices we’re making — staying at home, protecting the NHS, not seeing friends and family — are large by themselves, but nothing compared to the sacrifices our grandparents and great-grandparents made. Nothing, in fact, compared to the sacrifices our soldiers make every day.

After all, what we’re going through now is not a new normal for our men and women in uniform: it’s the old normal. On any given year, they have to go months without seeing their families. They suspend their lives for a cause bigger than any one person. They tragically lose friends and colleagues. And despite everything, they pull together, look out for one another, and emerge victorious. They set an example for all of us as we deal with coronavirus and lockdown.

They also show us the kind of country we are. Britain today is multiethnic, multiracial, varied in every possible way. And that has always been represented in our army, which throughout history has been made up of people from different races, religions and backgrounds; from the UK and from the Commonwealth. What unites our soldiers is their belief in Britain — their selfless determination to defend our country and protect our freedoms.

My grandad is one of the soldiers I thought about yesterday. Born and raised in Jamaica, he went on to fight for Britain in the Second World War. He’s the reason I’m here today. His belief that Britain was a country worth fighting for, worth giving up your life for if necessary, helped to shape my views from a very young age.

He also inspired my mum to sign me up for the Army Cadets, a decision that changed my life. I went from being a difficult kid to being a disciplined kid. The Army Cadets taught me that expectations are important, that you should never worry about failing as long as you get back up and give it another shot. The Army Cadets continue to play a huge role in my life — and it’s all thanks to the example my grandad set.

Not that my grandad’s story is unique. It’s the story of countless Commonwealth soldiers. The Sikhs and Muslims who fought heroically for Britain in the First and Second World Wars. The Hindus who served in the Burma Campaign. The countless Africans and Caribbeans commemorated at the African and Caribbean War Memorial in Brixton. These are some of the many people I paid tribute to on Sunday.

And many of those same Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Africans, and Caribbeans made the bold decision to uproot their lives and move to our country — just like my family did. Without a doubt, we are better off as a result of their decisions, and not just economically. Commonwealth citizens enriched our culture and, as we’ve seen over the last few months, they’re still on the frontlines today, saving lives by battling coronavirus.

Look at the British Asian entrepreneurs helping to keep London’s high streets alive. Look at their influence on our culture — from curry houses to our language itself. Look at the massive contribution made to London’s hospitals by Africans and Caribbeans every day — including my mum, who works for the NHS. This is modern Britain. And it proves that the Commonwealth isn’t just an organisation we’re part of; the Commonwealth is who we are.

That’s something to be grateful for, and not just on Remembrance Sunday. The fact that we are a nation of all colours and religions, all races and backgrounds; a nation that can come together as one to defeat our enemies, whether they appear in jackboots or in the form of a virus.

It’s also a lesson in working together. We know that coronavirus has caused mental health issues for people across the country. We know that lockdown will be tough. But we also know we can get through it — if we get through it together.

So whatever you’re doing and wherever you are, I hope you found renewed meaning in the Remembrance events yesterday. In these difficult times, ‘lest we forget’ is a more powerful message than ever.

Benjamin Obese-Jecty: Ministers must ensure the Overseas Operations Bill properly supports service personnel

3 Nov

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

The Overseas Operations Bill is critical legislation; we must ensure it supports our personnel effectively

Ahead of the third reading of the Overseas Operations Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has published its report (‘Legislative Scrutiny: Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill‘) and this week will seek to table a number of amendments.

Though the Bill passed at second reading by 332 to 77, costing a number of Labour rebels their roles in the process, the presumption against prosecution for British soldiers serving on operations overseas has proved to be a topic that has raised concerns in quarters beyond those of solely the Labour hard-left. The Chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman, has stated that the Bill “will allow those in our armed forces who perpetrate serious crimes to escape justice”.

Having served as an Infantry Officer on our two most recent protracted military operations, in both Basra and Sangin, I have the utmost confidence in the values and standards instilled and upheld by our service personnel and the leadership and moral courage shown by Officers and NCOs in confronting potentially illegal or damaging decisions and orders; to suggest otherwise belies a thorough misunderstanding of the qualities of our service personnel.

Despite the lengthy investigations of potential British war crimes carried out by the Iraq Historic Investigations Team (IHAT) and investigations in Afghanistan under Operation Northmoor, only two British servicemen have been prosecuted. However, the number of service personnel impacted by legal claims runs into thousands.

IHAT investigated 3,400 allegations against British service personnel, and Operation Northmoor a further 675, leading to one prosecution in 2005 and none since (Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman’s prosecution falling outside this framework). Therefore to place thousands of individuals under suspicion, some of whom already suffer the daily challenge of having served on operations during the most costly period for British forces overseas since the Second World War, is precisely the nature of vexatious claims that the Bill is designed to prevent – despite Reverend Nicholas Mercer’s view that the Bill itself is ‘egregious’.

During this week’s third reading of the Bill, Labour are expected to table a number of amendments, several of which are expected to fundamentally change its nature. But there is an opportunity to refine its detail in order to both assuage concerns and better support service personnel.

The Government must do its utmost to uphold the manifesto pledge to end the vexatious claims against members of our Armed Forces. With the majority of those who oppose the Bill having never found themselves faced with the life-or-death decisions placed upon our troops, particularly during the decade of high-tempo operations that started with the Iraq War, it would be remiss of the Government to acquiesce to their demands and facilitate the continued ease with which allegations are made.

Harman is expected to table an amendment that would remove the presumption against prosecution for service personnel, but the accusation that the Bill permits torture and war crimes to take place is not only an insult to the discipline and professionalism of our Armed Forces, it is simply not borne out by statistics. With thousands of service personnel having been needlessly harangued, protecting them from the debilitating pressure of lengthy investigations, sometimes years after they have served, remains crucial.

The six-year time limit restricting the ability of individuals to bring civil claims against the Government or the Ministry of Defence in relation to operational overseas service acts, however, flies in the face of this protection.

It is hard to envisage where the implementation of Clause 11 stands to benefit current or former service personnel. Under the conditions of the Bill, I as a veteran would find myself with a one-year timeframe to bring a civil case against the MoD should I develop an illness in later life caused by my operational service in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how this is of benefit to the thousands of veterans potentially impacted by this change.

Given the Government’s commitment to upholding the Armed Forces Covenant, it should not be afraid of confronting those circumstances when the duty of care towards personnel should have been greater. We cannot expect troops to show moral courage during demanding operations and not expect that to be reciprocated. Removing the six-year absolute limit upon civil claims for service personnel would reinforce the commitment to how they are valued and reinforce confidence that there is a framework in place that facilitates their needs should circumstances require it.

There has also been significant criticism of the Bill with regards to the duty to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights. Clause 12 of the Bill inserts a new section into the Human Rights Act which provides that the Secretary of State “must keep under consideration” whether the UK should make a derogation under Article 15 (derogation in time of emergency). Under this the Government is permitted to derogate from the convention in a “temporary, limited and supervised manner” and can be invoked “only in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. Though it has invoked derogation from Article 15 before, it is yet to do so in relation to overseas operations.

The ambiguity around whether the MoD defines “war” as per Article 15 ECHR as the same as “significant overseas operation” within Clause 11 of the Bill is one of the issues upon which critics have suggested clarification. In addition, clarification as to whether the Bill applies to international and non-international armed conflict as well as peacekeeping operations, special operations, and counter-terrorism operations will be vital in establishing the framework within which our forces are operating, and would prevent unnecessary scrutiny at a time when clear and transparent decision-making will be critical in ensuring confidence in our military operations.

The Overseas Operations Bill will uphold the election manifesto pledge to protect our service personnel against vexatious claims and the growing judicialization of warfare as well as illustrating that the Office for Veterans Affairs is delivering in its mission to enhance the quality of life for those who have served.

Current service personnel and veterans alike who have had their lives turned upside down by allegations and fruitless investigations by opportunists and activists deserve the protection on operations that the Government seeks to implement. We owe those same soldiers the right to challenge the MoD should they suffer long-term mental or physical injuries as a result of actions on those operations.

Gerald Howarth: To ensure post-Brexit success, the Government must bolster Britain’s military posture

29 Oct

Sir Gerald Howarth was the MP for Aldershot from 1997-2017, and Minister for International Security Strategy 2010-2012.

As a former Minister for International Security Strategy, I warmly welcomed a review intended to place defence and security within a foreign policy strategic context.

Entirely correctly, the Government has made clear that it wants post-Brexit Britain to play a key role on the world stage. That vision alone calls for a strong military posture because, like it or not, military strength tends to command influence.

It is that strong posture, built over centuries, which has enabled the UK to deploy soft power to significant effect. Loan service officers, joint exercises, training overseas military personnel and the Royal College for Defence Studies all help promote British influence, but our ability to deploy soft power is founded on our hard power – the nuclear deterrent, state-of-the-art kit, and, above all, superbly professional armed forces personnel who have distinguished themselves in recent battles from the Falklands to Afghanistan.

Indeed, the successful Falklands campaign overnight transformed the world’s perception of the UK from a nation in terminal postwar decline to one which once again commanded international respect and propelled Margaret Thatcher onto the world stage.

Increasing global tensions also dictate that we need to increase our defence capabilities – and certainly not cut them. Since the 2010 review in which I was involved, and which was Treasury-driven as a consequence of the £160 billion budget deficit we inherited, much has happened. Take just two examples: in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. It did so with complete impunity notwithstanding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by John Major, under which the US, UK and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for that country destroying its nuclear arsenal.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently annexed uninhabited atolls, ownership of which is disputed with other nearby nations, and turned them into military bases. Again, it has done so with complete impunity, so it is hardly surprising China has taken advantage of Western paralysis to impose draconian new laws in Hong Kong. Britain has a locus: following our withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, the UK drew up the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia to safeguard the interests of the latter two.

Our failure to strengthen our defence posture poses the real risk of further instability worldwide.

Britain has an impressive defence industry which a Conservative government should be keen to nurture. For over a century the UK has been a world leader in aerospace and continue to hold that position today through companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce but sustained by a broad and innovative SME sector. We are the second largest exporter of defence equipment, after the United States, which not only earns us annual revenues of around £15 billion but enables us to offer tangible support to our friends and allies.

“Buying off the shelf” in reality means buying from the US which is our closest military ally but a formidable competitor in the defence market which has in the past blocked UK military exports containing US components through its application of ITAR (International Trading in Armaments Regulations) restrictions.

As Labour Lord Drayson’s 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy stated, the loss of sovereign capability leads inevitably to loss of operational sovereignty, to which add the loss of those defence exports. The UK is an equity partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, yet the US continues to deny us access to the computer source codes.

Fortunately, the UK has recognised the danger. The Tempest aircraft programme, which is ITAR-free, will deliver a sixth generation optionally manned capability, exploiting new disruptive technologies essential to tomorrow’s battle-winning capability.

It is led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, supported by Thales UK, Leonardo and missile manufacturer MBDA together with around 600 UK SMEs and institutions. It will generate valuable, new UK technology and employ tens of thousands of skilled people, many in the North of England and Scotland. It is a statement of national intent which also makes economic sense.

The special challenge today is how to maintain effective conventional forces (we cannot expose ourselves to the risk of being outmanoeuvred as a result of having neglected those forces) whilst also developing tomorrow’s technology. You do not win wars using old equipment so investing in future technology like cyber and AI is essential. Funding for defence research has endured a persistent decline in the last two decades; that must change.

[Through no fault of its own, apart from our excellent Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this Government lacks senior ministers with knowledge of, or experience in, the military. This review must not be rushed and expert advice should be sought and heeded.]

Inevitably, Covid-19 has thrown government financial planning into chaos. Nevertheless, it would be folly, and damaging to the PM’s critical post-Brexit vision for the United Kingdom, if he fails to acknowledge the long-term requirements of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Abandoning the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will cause major problems for the MoD which manages an equipment programme stretching over several years. For example, the Tempest programme requires multi-year funding to maintain the confidence of our international partners that the UK remains committed to Tempest. It will also ensure the UK remains ahead of competitor programmes.

Conservatives hold that the first duty of government is defence of the Realm. Money has rightly been found to deal with the pandemic; it now needs to be found to ensure our national security and give credibility to that post-Brexit vision.