Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Impenetrable jargon is Defence Secretary’s most powerful weapon

Do the ministers absorb by osmosis their civil service briefs?

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Indy Politics

You can’t help wondering what surviving Defence Secretaries of a previous generation – Lords  Carrington and  Healey, say – would think if they were unwise enough to wander into the Commons to see how their old department was doing at Question Time.

For a start, since both of the Second World War veterans were plain speakers, they would be baffled by their  successors’ suffocating use  of jargon.

Asked about future wages and conditions in the reformed procurement arm Defence Equipment and Support, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond crisply explained: “There will be an overall envelope of resources for operating costs that will  be subject to a downward  trajectory over time representing efficiency.

“Within that envelope, there will be very broad freedom to tailor pay and conditions to the requirements of the marketplace.” This was, he added poetically, a “bespoke central Government trading entity” which would be, after all, “commercial-facing”.

This may – or may not – mean that a lot of money is going to be saved on the backs of the employees. But the main question is whether ministers simply absorb by osmosis the most impenetrable and euphemistic slabs  of their civil service briefs –  or actually make up this  stuff themselves. 

Hammond was by no means the only offender. Asked a fairly simple question by the Lib Dem Martin Horwood about what the Government was doing to “support conflict prevention”, junior Defence Minister Dr Andrew Murrison replied that the department “uses a multi-departmental approach to prioritise UK activity in upstream conflict prevention and stabilising fragile and conflict-affected states around the world in association with partner nations”.

Which presumably translates as “we’re trying to do our share”.  

After this, it was a relief when the MP James Gray – while welcoming the return of 4,000 soldiers from  Germany – voiced worries about the impact of new housing for them on “Stonehenge and the mysterious mists and swirling druidical mysteries that surround the stones”. Would he “look carefully at reports” that the homes would “block off the rising sun at the summer equinox”?

It would be nice to think Gray had forsaken the normal concerns of Tory backbenchers to come out as a burdock-drinking New Age pagan. But he was as agitated as many of his colleagues at the cuts in Army numbers, asking separately whether the armed services minister, Mark Francois, had just a “frisson of worry” on reading the Defence Select Committee’s criticisms that he “just might have done the wrong thing”.

Thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the Tory backbench critics of the Army cuts have found their moment. The former Army captain John Baron wanted sharply increased spending “even if white elephants such as High Speed 2 have to be sacrificed along the way”.

But perhaps the most  resonant question on the  subject was asked by the  right-wing Tory backbencher Sir Edward Leigh. “An attack on one Nato country is an attack on all of them,” he said. “Can we therefore thank God that Ukraine never did join Nato, because otherwise we might now be involved in a European war?”

This was a hard point to rebut. And Hammond didn’t really try.