Michael Fallon resigns as defence secretary – implications for the Royal Navy

After more than three years as Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Cathel Fallon KCB has resigned amidst allegations about his personal conduct. He admitted his standards “fallen short” of those expected by the UK military.

The full details of his misconduct remain unclear. He apparently was rebuked by journalist, Julia Hartley-Brewer, for putting his hand on her knee at a social function in 2002. She has said she considers the incident trivial and hardly grounds for resignation.

His departure is rather a surprise to everyone, Fallon was seen as a dull, but competent and politically reliable ally of Theresa May. The sexual abuse scandal engulfing Westminster is another blow to a weak government and the tainted political system in general. Not good news for the country as a whole and an unfortunate time for the Ministry of Defence on the cusp of a defence review.

Last week Michael Fallon was reportedly grilling the First Sea Lord about the sexual misconduct of officers aboard Trident submarine HMS Vigilant. At least he had the decency to recognise his own moral authority has now been undermined and resign swiftly. Having labelled 2017 “the year of the Royal Navy” and frequently rehearsed the untruth that “we have a growing Royal Navy”, awkward times were approaching for Fallon. It seems likely that significant cuts to the RN will be announced before the end of the year and justifying these claims would become even harder. The coming defence review car crash may also have been a factor in his decision to go.

While wrong-doing cannot be ignored, especially by those in the most senior positions, it might be helpful for those passing instant judgement to remember that our leaders are people too. Whether Secretary of State or captain of a nuclear submarine, it can be a lonely job, working long hours away from home and subject to enormous pressures. Let he who is innocent cast the first stone.

Better the devil you know?

Many will be glad to see the back of Fallon. Despite the spin & half-truths and lies which are par-for-the-course with most cabinet ministers, Fallon is a loss. Unlike some ministers, He was serious about the job and did not merely consider himself keeping the seat warm until getting another promotion. Having lasted in the job for more than three years, this provided a measure of stability to the department and allowed him to understand the job in a way his predecessor Philip Hammond did not.

The Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Stuart Peach is due to leave to become Chairman of the NATO Military Committee next year. Tony Douglas head of the Defence Equipment and Support has resigned and leaves at the end of the year. Louise Tulett, director-general of finance at the MoD, has just retired. These are very uncertain times for the MoD and the loss of Fallon leaves the ship looking rudderless, just as it is approaching the rocks.

Senior Naval figures saw him as a decent choice in the circumstances. He did appear to be well on top of the very complex defence brief and was genuinely concerned about the issues. He was considered a political heavyweight and had a significant voice in cabinet.

Although he patently failed to get the Treasury to provide the significant increase in funding that the MoD so desperately needs, he did at least get Theresa May to publicly commit to a rise in defence spending above 0.5% above inflation every year. The rise is small and will not be nearly enough to mitigate the problems but he is the first Defence Secretary to preside over any kind of rising budget for more than 10 years. He also ensured the closure of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) team that was involved in the disgraceful hounding of ex-servicemen.

From the RN’s perspective, his “year of the Royal Navy” statement was welcome as he was tying himself closely to the fortunes of the service. He was firmly committed to the carrier project, Trident renewal and the frigate programme. He had promised to visit each of the eight shipyards in the UK that may have stake in the Type 31e project and talk to management and workers, something he was not obliged to do.

No one is going to mourn Fallon’s departure to any great extent or remember him as one of the greats but he was a reasonably safe pair of hands, dealt impossible cards by the Treasury.

Gavin Williamson receives a “hospital pass”

With apparently no experience of defence matters, a relatively youthful 41-year-old has been appointed to replace Fallon. In Parliament since 2010 as MP for South Staffordshire, Williamson has served as junior Transport minister and Tory party Chief Whip. Loyal to Theresa May, this appointment can be seen as politically convenient for the Prime Minister when there are several other young and better qualified Tory MPs with a far better engagement in defence matters. The job itself will be extremely difficult and let us hope he is able to be more than a mouthpiece to explain the latest round of cuts.

At a time when post-Brexit Britain needs a strong navy and a properly funded and functioning Ministry of Defence, this appointment is critical and with rather limited optimism we wish the new man every success.

 

Royal Navy parts cannibalisation - a concern or a crisis?
HMS Queen Elizabeth has sailed for part 2 sea trials