Ex-British Army chief says Theresa May's choice for Defence Secretary not the best choice 'from a defence point of view'

Exclusive: Lord Dannatt told The Independent the Prime Minister had chosen to make a 'heavily political' appointment

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Thursday 02 November 2017 16:09
Who is new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson?

An ex-head of the British Army has said Theresa May’s decision to make her loyal chief whip the new Defence Secretary is not the best choice "from a defence point of view".

Richard Dannatt told The Independent that a minister at the MoD would have been a better option, but instead Ms May had made a “heavily political” decision to promote Gavin Williamson because he is a trusted lieutenant.

It comes amid a parliamentary backlash following the boost for Mr Williamson, who also ran Ms May's leadership campaign, with one MP describing it as an “HMS Pinafore appointment” - a reference to the famous comic opera - and another senior backbencher calling the Prime Minister's decision "extraordinary".

Speaking just hours after the move was announced, Lord Dannatt said he had found the appointment, “quite surprising”.

He explained: “It is obviously heavily political in so far as she has chosen a leading lieutenant to support her in Cabinet.

“That’s fine, but I’m interested in the furtherance of our defence effort, with our budget under pressure and as Michael Fallon has started to speak publicly about the need to increase spending – I hope [Mr Williamson] quickly comes to the same conclusion.”

Lord Dannatt, chief of the general staff between 2006 and 2009, said that he believes defence spending needs to increase by between 0.25 per cent and 0.5 per cent of GDP.

He went on: “I said this morning that promoting one of the existing defence ministers would be the best outcome from a defence point of view, but I fully respect the PM’s desire to give a senior job in Cabinet to a trusted lieutenant.”

After Sir Michael resigned amid allegations in the growing Westminster sexual harassment scandal, names in the frame for the MoD top job had been Defence Minister Ben Wallace, Penny Mordaunt, an ex-defence minister now at the Department for Work and Pensions, and Brandon Lewis, the Immigration Minister.

Mr Williamson’s recent experience is in working closely with the Prime Minister, he has been critical to efforts to stabilise Ms May’s administration in the wake of the election – helping broker a deal with the DUP and ensuring the Government’s legislative programme has backing.

His appointment also helps to keep the Brexit balance of the Cabinet, as Mr Williamson was a remainer like Sir Michael, whereas Ms Mordaunt was a Leaver. Mr Wallace is a close ally of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

New Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson

On Thursday morning Conservative MPs also questioned the ex-chief whip’s suitability for the defence job, with one telling The Independent it was “a real HMS Pinafore appointment”.

The comment is a reference to Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, which contains a song carrying the lyric: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee”.

With chief whips usually playing a central role in Cabinet reshuffles, Downing Street was forced to state that Mr Williamson had nothing to do with this particular one.

But a senior MP was not convinced saying: “Gavin is all about making sure Gavin is in a position from which Gavin can become Prime Minister. In this instance he has been judge, jury and executioner to Fallon and he is now also the beneficiary.

Michael Fallon announces resignation as Defence Secretary

"It's extraordinary that she sanctioned it. She could have made a major statement and appointed Penny as the first female Defence Secretary."

A second backbencher told The Independent: “It doesn’t exactly symbolise a Prime Minister who is confident in her own position, does it.”

A Number 10 spokesman said: “Gavin Williamson was an excellent and hardworking chief whip and the Prime Minister thinks he will make an excellent Defence Secretary.”

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