When Conservative prime ministers face a problem of logistics – from ambulance-driver shortages to border-force failures – there is a solution they like to fall back on: send in the military.
When Boris Johnson was London mayor, he welcomed David Cameron’s decision to invite the army to help with the Olympics after the security firm G4S failed to provide enough staff. Now Johnson is in No. 10, he regularly calls in the troops to deal with any state deficiencies. During the pandemic, army personnel worked closely with the NHS, first in helping to build a Nightingale hospital in ten days and then during the vaccine rollout. Just this week, the government welcomed ‘a far-reaching review’ of health and social care leadership co-produced by Sir Gordon Messenger, who led the Royal Marines’ invasion of Iraq.
Might the army also fix the dysfunction in Johnson’s Downing Street? At the start of the year, when the partygate story broke, Tobias Ellwood – a former soldier and the chair of the defence select committee – said that an officer should be drafted in to bring ‘a bit of discipline’. None was forthcoming. Instead, Johnson replied with a military allusion, telling colleagues it would take a ‘Panzer division’ to get him out of No. 10.
Since then, things have got worse for the Prime Minister. Ellwood is one of the 148 MPs who this week voted to force him out of office. The rebels failed this time, but the fact that 41 per cent of the parliamentary party voted against Johnson means there’s talk of there being a second attempt before the year is out, and a leadership contest to follow. Such a contest would be unpredictable. After Rishi Sunak’s fall from grace, there is no obvious frontrunner. But many Tory MPs and party members are beginning to think that candidates with military credentials could have the edge.
When one senior Conservative recently polled some Tory activists as to who they thought could make an effective leader, he was struck that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat were the two most popular choices. The group noted approvingly that both men had served in the army.
MPs with defence credentials are over-represented in the Conservative parliamentary party – more than 40 are military veterans or reservists. Those who haven’t served are hyper-aware of the appeal. One senior minister’s guide for wannabe MPs looking for a safe seat is to make sure it has good schools, isn’t too close to London and has an army base. The last of these means plenty of chances to show support on an issue that pleases the party membership.
That defence credentials are a greater asset than ever for ambitious Tories is not just because of the war in Ukraine (the government has won support from backbenchers and the party membership for its handling of the situation). It’s also about setting potential new leaders apart from Johnson.
In Conservative leadership contests there is a tendency to overcorrect. Margaret Thatcher was domineering; John Major was meek. David Cameron was slick; Theresa May was solid. May was then criticised for a lack of personality or social skills; Johnson offered plenty of both.
Since Johnson won his majority of 80 in 2019, he has become known for other traits: a disregard for the rules and a loose relationship with the truth. It’s therefore no coincidence that, after months of drift, several of the names doing the rounds have a strong claim to military discipline.
‘A service record has become shorthand for values,’ says a former minister. Others regard the MPs on military manoeuvres differently. ‘They tend to have very high opinions of themselves, which means they’re not backward about coming forward,’ says one who did not serve in the army.
Still, there are several possible Conservative cadet candidates, led by the Defence Secretary. Wallace served with the Scots Guards in Germany, Cyprus, Belize and Northern Ireland. He has won support from the membership for sending lethal aid to Ukraine before Russia’s invasion, and has sat at the top of the popularity table as voted by readers of the ConservativeHome website for four months. ‘Ben will be the next prime minister,’ says a senior Tory who backed Johnson in 2019.
Next is Tugendhat, who was in the army from 2003 to 2013, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. His supporters point to his speech in an emergency debate on the evacuation from Kabul. Like many veterans, he said, he had struggled through ‘anger, grief and rage’ as the scenes unfolded. The supporters say it showed he’s a ‘values politician’.
There are others who fall into the Conservative cadet category. Penny Mordaunt – a Royal Navy reservist who briefly served as defence secretary under May – regularly references her credentials. When she spoke at The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards in 2014, she revealed that she delivered a speech on poultry welfare for the sole purpose of saying ‘cock’ several times after her Navy colleagues gave her the forfeit for a misdemeanour during training.
Mordaunt is some bookmakers’ number four choice for the next leader at present (Tugendhat is second and Jeremy Hunt, an admiral’s son, first). She recently wrote a newspaper article about President Eisenhower and D-Day in which she offered her thoughts on leadership. It should be ‘focused less on the leader and more on the ship’, she wrote, adding that confidence and competence are ‘not the same’. Mordaunt doesn’t impress everybody. One minister says suggestions that she is a serious contender are as mystifying as ‘the Bermuda triangle’.
If military candidates continue to gain special favour in the eyes of the party membership, still others could march to the front. Johnson’s chief of staff Steve Barclay did a stint as a second lieutenant in the army. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (the bookie’s third choice) lacks military experience, but she rarely misses a military photo op. Last year she famously posed in a tank in Latvia in a deliberate echo of Thatcher. As she told friends after: ‘If you were asked to, why on earth would you not want to go in a tank?’
There may not be a leadership contest yet, but there is no shortage of candidates ready for the charge.
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