August 31, 2023 - 5:15pm

It’s been quite the year for Grant Shapps. Following his appointment this morning as Defence Secretary, he now has the dubious honour of having served in no fewer than five Cabinet posts in the span of just one year.

On the surface, Defence must look like a fairly comfortable brief compared to a poisoned chalice such as the Home Office. There is a broad cross-party consensus on the most pressing policy issue, Ukraine, and few politicians suffer from having an excuse to endlessly say nice things about the Armed Forces.

Indeed, Ben Wallace became by some distance the most popular member of the Cabinet, holding an unchallengeable lead in league tables ranking Government ministers.

Yet this rosy picture is misleading, because the Ministry of Defence is a department beset by serious, systemic problems. Some of these are not really its fault, of course, but it is fair to ask about the increasingly ropey state of the Armed Forces.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have seen the Defence budget as an easy cut. Yet while budgets have been pared back time and again, politicians have never had an honest debate about a more focused (some might say limited) role for the military.

Thus, the Armed Forces are expected to do everything — maintain the strength of the army, remain a two-carrier blue-water navy, and so on — on less and less money, with predictable consequences. This problem is compounded by a stubborn insistence on expensive, top-of-the-line kit which we are very, very bad at buying.

Again, broader Government priorities are partly to blame. Unable to honour all its ambitions on existing projects but unwilling to go through with cancellations, projects are salami-sliced and extended to spread (and thus, inflate) the costs.

But the Ministry of Defence has also failed to get a grip on the problem. Major projects are consistently wildly over-budget and late. Nor do they all even work: to date, the only damage done by the ÂŁ3.5 billion Ajax armoured vehicles has been to deafen some British soldiers.

So bad has this become that the Defence Select Committee has recently launched a full inquiry into the problem, headed up by Mark Francois. But avenues for scrutiny are limited, with the MoD having consistently fought off efforts to open up defence spending to interrogation by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

By fending off independent oversight, the MoD has tacitly taken responsibility for making sure defence funds are well spent — and manifestly failed. Wallace, a former soldier well-respected in the defence community, failed to get a grip on this problem; there would appear to be little grounds for optimism that Shapps will be an improvement.

Defence procurement, though, is a granular, unappealing topic that will take a long time to solve. So close to the next election, Rishi Sunak putting one of Cabinet’s better communicators in one of the Conservatives’ stronger briefs looks much more like a political decision than a managerial one.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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