With parliamentarians now returned to Westminster following the annual party conferences, both the House of Commons and House of Lords will sit (barring a week’s recess) until Christmas.
While Brexit has continued to dominate the agenda (with some progress but talks largely deadlocked on the size of the UK’s ‘divorce’ payment), Westminster has been rocked in recent weeks by the resignation of Sir Michael Fallon as Secretary of State for Defence. Sir Michael, who would have been the longest serving Defence Secretary had he remained in post to February 2018, is succeeded by RT Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP, the now former Chief Whip. Mr Williamson was chiefly known in his former role (where he was responsible for ensuring discipline among the Conservative parliamentary ranks) for keeping a pet tarantula – Cronus – in his office.
Prior to Sir Michael’s shock resignation, defence news over the past month had been dominated by continued questions and criticisms of defence spending and the MoD budget, ahead of the Chancellor’s Budget statement, which will take place on 22 November.
Sir Michael appeared before the Defence Select Committee in recent weeks, as it emerged the MoD could face a budget shortfall of up to £30 billion over the next decade. The MoD has also been hit in the last month with speculation that it could be willing to sell Royal Navy vessels to countries such as Chile and Brazil, with the assets potentially including the only two ships within the fleet specialising in amphibious landings.
The removal of amphibious landing capability would significantly impede the UK’s ability to deploy the Royal Marines, and prompted public demonstrations of concern over British defence spending and capacity from senior officers in the US military.
The MoD’s difficult month in the media was further compounded by the refusal of ministers appearing before the Defence Select Committee to disclose anticipated costs for a high-profile fighter procurement programme that has been dogged by suggestions of overspending.
With the Chancellor giving the Budget in less than three weeks, it seems unlikely the MoD will be afforded any additional budget to address its projected shortfall. Philip Hammond has already highlighted that the relaxation of the public sector pay cap for the Armed Forces will have to be met from the existing MoD budget; while forecasts from respected bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have suggested the Chancellor will be very limited in his ability to increase public spending while remaining committed to eliminating the budget deficit. This is likely to result in further demands for savings across government, including from the MDP.
The Federation’s communications activity in the past month has focused on briefing key parliamentarians and preparations for an event in Parliament intended to support the DPF’s and MDP’s ongoing profile with MPs; while also introducing those Members elected in June to the work of the Federation and MDP.
The Political Approach
During the past month, the Federation has met with Defence Select Committee Chairman Rt Hon Dr Julian Lewis, with fellow Committee member Martin Docherty (SNP) also attending.
The purpose of the meeting was to update Dr Lewis, with whom we’ve been in regular contact, on challenges facing the MDP, notably in terms of recent demands for budget cuts and the resetting of the MDP complement – noting particularly the possible consequences for the protection of high value assets (the procurement of which has been a consistent focus of the Select Committee in recent years).
Dr Lewis has reiterated his support for the MDP and DPF; also confirming his willingness to write to the Secretary of State and to table parliamentary questions if required. His continued support is highly beneficial as a leading non-ministerial voice on defence matters in the Palace of Westminster.
We have also met in the past month with SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald, who has also committed to sponsoring the DPF’s parliamentary event, which will take place in early December. This meeting provided an update for Mr McDonald on the DPF’s activities since a previous meeting during the summer, and discussed plans for the parliamentary event.
The Federation is in the process of securing additional briefings with parliamentarians before the House of Commons rises for Christmas recess at the end of the year.
Central to our parliamentary engagement programme will be the early-December event, which we hope will be attended and addressed by Defence Minister Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP. Eamon Keating has also met Mr Ellwood separately in the past month to introduce him to the work of the Federation following his move to the MoD in a post general election reshuffle.
Helpfully, we also anticipate both the Defence Select Committee and SNP defence team to be well represented at the event.
In the past month, the Federation has continued to communicate with national defence correspondents – notably Times defence editor Deborah Haynes, who has reported regularly on the potential for further MoD cuts.
National Chairman Eamon Keating also submitted a letter on the issue of defence cuts for consideration to the newspaper.
While our focus over the next month will be on parliamentary engagement and briefings, we remain in close contact with supportive national defence correspondents.
As mentioned previously, should any members wish to contact their local MPs for any reason, we would remind you that any such communication would be subject to MDP regulations.