James Forsyth

Cameron’s military muck-up

Cameron's military muck-up
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One of the biggest mistakes David Cameron has made as leader of the opposition was the announcement at Tory party conference that Sir Richard Dannatt was to become a Tory peer and would likely serve in a Tory government. It devalued all of Dannatt’s previous criticisms of the government over its treatment of the army and the equipment shortages in Afghanistan. They no longer looked like the words of a general standing up for his men regardless of the political consequences but party political point scoring. 

It also showed a lack of confidence in the current Tory defence team. Indeed, Cameron had to go out of his way to say that Liam Fox would be defence secretary in his conference speech in an attempt to right this. But, most importantly, it infuriated the military who felt it threatened to subvert the chain of command as well as compromise the forces’ political impartiality. The RAF and the navy didn’t like the idea of an army man deciding how the budget should be sliced up and Dannatt’s successor as head of the army, Sir David Richards was livid that he would find himself effectively usurped by his predecessor. Ian Kirby reports today that Richards was so furious that he threatened to have Dannatt prosecuted under the army act for accepting a political job while still in the army. The consequence of all this is that Dannatt will not serve as a minister initially.

The Cameron operation should learn from this episode. What has caused them problems in this case is placing short-term advantage—they felt that Dannatt’s appointment would win them good headlines and show them to be the government in waiting—ahead of long-term strategy. It also highlighted a lack of consultation, remember how Chris Grayling had no idea it had happened. If people outside the inner circle had been asked what they thought of the plan, someone might have flagged up the obvious problems with offering a senior serving officer a political peerage and position on his retirement.  

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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