Bruce Anderson: Courage on the battlefield, cowardice in the Cabinet

Dannatt would be as hard on a Tory government as on a Labour one
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The Independent Online

Just before David Cameron's speech on Thursday, I re-read Margaret Thatcher's 1978 conference speech: an interesting comparison. Though powerful, the Thatcher text was disjointed, which is hardly surprising. It would have been completed at 4.30 that morning, by men – and a lady – who had been up at least as late on the past three nights, after spending much of the previous fortnight in hard drafting. David Cameron wrote a lot of his own speech and it was put to bed on the Tuesday. The only obstacle to his enjoying himself at the evening parties was the need to keep the champagne glass off camera.

A calm speech does not guarantee a prosperous voyage. Not since 1979 has an incoming peacetime government faced such a mountain range of challenges. In addition, Mr Cameron has committed himself to a social and public-service agenda far more radical than anything Mrs Thatcher attempted. This is not some amiable toff emulating Edward, Prince of Wales and saying that something must be done. This is a man who knows that the times demand greatness and who is determined to rise to the level of events.

But events have an anarchic streak. The affair of Sir Richard Dannatt is instructive. Richard Dannatt has embraced controversy with the same enthusiasm as David Cameron embraces challenges, and has polarised opinion. There are those – by no means all Lefties – who think that he has behaved badly. Serving officers can make their views known in private. In extremis, they can resign. But they must not become party political.

It is also said that the General is not a good listener. He is thought to be religious, which always makes the English uneasy: shades of General Gordon in Khartoum. Some have even said that Richard Dannatt listens to God more than to his colleagues. Whatever view one takes of the Almighty, He is not a member of the Army Board.

There is a counter-argument. The Chief of the General Staff is the guardian of the military covenant, that implicit understanding by which the nation, via the government, honours and rewards the forces for their bravery and self-sacrifice while ensuring that they have the weaponry they need. This government has repeatedly breached that covenant. It has sent men to war in inadequate numbers, with inadequate equipment, in pursuit of ill-thought-out objectives – and much of the blame rests with Gordon Brown.

When Charles Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff, he once accused Mr Brown of taking no interest in defence. That exchange became well known in the forces. It did not enhance their confidence in the government. There was a further problem. A number of generals became convinced that the defence budget was a victim of Gordon Brown's antagonism towards the Prime Minister. At moments, the forces seemed to be Tony's favourite toy box, and Gordon never believed in financing his resented rival's pleasures.

Men have died in Afghanistan because Tony Blair was too weak to face down his Chancellor. The contrast between the courage on the battlefield and the cowardice in the cabinet room would shame any government which retained a sense of shame. But this is a government which has now had five Defence Secretaries in four years. The current one is Bob Ainsworth, a nonentity and a dunce. Did Gordon Brown set out to insult the armed forces with his ministerial appointments, or does he simply not care? Whatever the answer, and there is no third way, one can understand why Richard Dannatt was angry.

Those inclined to shake their heads over Sir Richard's conduct should ask themselves how they would have dealt with that set of poltroons masquerading as ministers. It is to be hoped that no future CGS ever finds himself in Sir Richard's position. It is, therefore, encouraging that David Cameron should have recruited him as an adviser. Whatever the General's political leanings, he would if necessary be as hard on a Tory government as on a Labour one. We can only hope that he never has cause.

Gordon Brown tried to set up a government of all talents – acronym "goat" – on the assumption that his goats would turn into sheep. Instead, they have mostly resigned. But even if Richard Dannatt believes in Good Shepherds and Lambs of God, there is nothing sheep-like about him, any more than there is about another important Tory national security advisor, Pauline Neville-Jones, small but perfectly fierce. A Leader who surrounds himself with such calibre and forthrightness does not lack self-confidence.

There is only one problem. When Mr Cameron reaches No. 10, he will discover just how many able people there are in the military. He might also decide that it would be unfair to General Sir David Richards if his immediate predecessor were one of his ministers. In most organisations, a retiring boss leaves the field clear for his successor. The Army should be no exception. Once a peer, Richard Dannatt should either serve in another department or protect the military covenant from the backbenches.

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