Gavin Williamson was a far from popular appointment when he was promoted to defence secretary last year. Among the more charitable descriptions, he was branded a “self-serving c***”. But take a closer look at what he’s been doing at his department and a slightly different picture emerges. The truth is, Williamson has a good story to tell.

This article was submitted by Dr Rowan Allport, a Senior Fellow and the Security and Defense team lead at the Human Security Centre. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan’s primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC’s The Two Per Cent Solution: an Alternative Strategic Defence and Security Review report. 

Late last year, the writing appeared to be on the wall for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), with drastic cuts being planned. But fast-forward six months and an additional £800 million has been added to its 2018/19 budget, with the prospect of more money to follow. As an individual running one of the least subtle party leadership bids in British history, Williamson is, of course, more than happy to let people give him the credit. But the story is much more complex than that.

The UK has somehow got itself into a position where it needs to revise its defence posture just over two years since it published its most recent National Security Strategy & Strategic Defence and Security Review. Financially, it had combined over-optimistic plans for procurement and efficiency savings and then been faced with a stark fall in the value of sterling after the Brexit vote, making imported military equipment more expensive. That left a projected budget gap of around £20 billon over a decade.

In policy terms, the shock of Brexit, a series of terrorist attacks after a period of relative calm, and a desire to shift towards a more holistic approach to security, were all also important factors. Theresa May’s national security advisor, Mark Sedwill, was duly tasked with heading a Cabinet Office National Security Capability Review. At the time, this was expected to cover all aspects of security policy, including defence.

Very quickly, rumours emerged of major capability reductions – including the loss of the Royal Navy’s amphibious landing ships. Leading MPs and retired military officers interjected. This is par for the course in defence reviews, but there was a wider feeling of agitation at the decision to make the Sedwill review ‘cost neutral’. Defence minister Tobias Ellwood reportedly threatened to resign over proposed cuts to the army and a spat between Williamson and Philip Hammond occurred which included the chancellor being denied the use of an RAF plane until the Treasury paid an outstanding bill from the MoD.

After a ferocious lobbying operation, Williamson managed to spin out the defence element of the review into a separate Modernising Defence Programme, for publication in the summer of 2018, with a tacked on agreement that additional funding would be a possibility. This in and of itself did not accomplish a great deal, but it bought him time.

Are there any reasons for the MoD to expect favourable results from the review? Fundamentally, it will be the political backdrop that determines the outcome. Luck plays as big a role in this as skill.

As is often the case, one person’s luck often results from the misfortune of others. One of the most important developments in UK defence policy of recent years occurred on March 4th, when Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found slumped unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury. Suspicions of Moscow’s involvement immediately arose, given Sergei Skripal’s previous role as a double agent for MI6, and it was soon determined that he and his daughter had been poisoned by a nerve agent to which only Russia could plausibly have access.

This development had two major political consequences. Most directly, the sight of scientists trudging around suburban Wiltshire in chemical protection suits elevated the threat presented by Russia from something abstract and distant to something tangible. Hammond’s 2015 assertion that there are “no votes in defence” now seems shaky at best.

The second consequence involved the Labour leadership’s appalling handling of the incident. Conservative attempts to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a threat to national security are nothing new, but they’d failed to stick in the past. But his refusal to attribute blame to the Russian state – despite being briefed on evidence that subsequently convinced dozens of countries to expel diplomatic staff – will have unnerved many voters. Three-quarters of the UK public believe it probable that Russia carried out the attack. There is strong approval of Theresa May’s handling of the issue.

This provides a party political incentive to a Tory security spending initiative. The government can now make a strong financial commitment and dare Corbyn to reject it. The 2017 Labour manifesto pledged to match the Conservative’s commitment to maintain defence spending at two per cent of GDP. Pushing that number to 2.5% would present a major dilemma for Labour’s current leadership. It would also provide an opportunity for the Conservatives to maintain their grip on many of the more nationalistic, pro-Brexit working class Labour voters who jumped ship to the party – be it directly or via Ukip – in 2017.

The impact of the poisoning of the Skripals might not have been as potent had serving senior officers not been pushed by the defence secretary to speak out, both about the threat posed by Russia and the requirement for new investment. Notably, in January, general Nicholas Carter – currently the head of the Army and soon to be chief of the defence staff – delivered a speech signed off by Williamson in which he highlighted Moscow’s “eyewatering” capabilities. This preparation has made the construction of a pro-defence narrative around the Salisbury incident far easier.

The indications are now that sustained additional funding will be granted to the MoD as part of the November 2018 Budget. Former defence secretary Michael Fallon is calling for resources at the level of 2.5% of GDP to be made available to the MoD – a rise of around £7.7 billion per year. This may be unrealistic, but a substantial cash sum is in the offing – particularly given Theresa May’s likely need to sooth right-wing backbenchers around the time of the Brexit deal vote this autumn.

Praise for Williamson should be limited. He has found himself in this position as much by political circumstance as by skill, and any new cash for the MoD will come with strings attached, probably in the form of efficiency savings. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the defence secretary seems to be achieving things at his department, no matter what his colleagues might think of him.


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tim sinnett

On the surface it certainly appears he is providing more effective resistance to damaging cuts. Even a few small wins in the right direction too. Dare we dream for some actual uplifts in capability soon?


He is on the rise, and his contemporaries will tread warily. For once, we have a politician who shows an understanding of the importance of maintaining a strong military force. Currently, his best ally is Macron; who clearly intends to expand French military influence across the World. Nothing sturs the British heart more than a globally ambitious France, more, please Macron.

michael lewendon

UK AIR SPACE, Bit of FAKE NEWS for All. This was how they responded to Archive Evidence found after America-Russia Interference: [TOP SECRET] The Russian Military were wanting Archive Evidence held by M.O.D. Dated 11/09/2004. England,RG30 3RR. The Skripals were asked to contact MI6 for information regarding these Archives. The Skripals refused. Putin sent IN his reply. But Missed. Trump said he would protect the Archives from Russian eyes? M.O.D refuses to acknowledge such New Energy Force? May has told Boris to keep his nose out of this, and to tone it all down. England alone wants this energy kept… Read more »

[…] post Whisper it: Gavin Williamson is actually doing pretty well at the MoD appeared first on UK Defence […]

Mr J Bell

If Williamson can deliver a much needed rise of budget to 2.5% GDP to defence ratio with a rise of nearly £8 billion a year that would be a huge acheuvement. The fact we need to return critical mass and put numbers back into our armed forces means we need that level of budgetary commitment right now.


That would be a huge achievement but I agree with what the article says, it’s unlikely. The Pound has been recovering in the last few months so I wonder whether the hole in the budget based on existing announced plans is still £20bn over the next decade as the article states. If it is then the sad truth is that over a decade the first £2bn a year of any extra cash would need to go towards plugging that hole to keeping us standing still. On top of that I would say that another non-trivial amount of any extra cash,… Read more »

Lee H

Morning Julian
T31e will be a struggle, this is a credibility thing now between the MoD and HMT.
The budget has been set, imaginative ways are going to have to be worked out if you want to see more “offensive” weapon capabilities added to the baseline.
The core baseline is already there, it is now upto industry to see if they can make RN ambition against a tighter profit margin.
AESA – yes
Mk41 – yes
Meteor – now please
Typhoon FAST packs – now please
P-8 – more and now please
Headcount – increase


Interesting you say that core Type 31 is there within the £250m and that the challenge is to add more offensive capability for the adaptable requirements. This would explain why the Babcock consortium has recruited OMT.
An Absalom ‘IKEA’ like design would maybe facilitate containerised Sea Ceptor AShM and UXV. So you could buy say 3 off of Sea Ceptor, NSM and UXV containers to be shared across 5 or more ships to be loaded as and when the mission dictates. This would keep the average price down.
Am definitely looking forward to seeing what Babcock come up with.

Lee H

Hi Paul
It gives the RN flexibility to role specify platforms dependent on requirement, very much like tailored air groups on carriers.
Remember these packages are air portable so can be pre-positioned if needs be and role swap could be achieved quickly if you had somewhere to do it, for example:
It’s almost as if the RN is thinking of going global whilst working in the constraints of a budget.
Stranger things have happened….


Brilliant idea and I agree with Lee on this.

Remember, Dr Who’s TARDIS is the result of severe BBC cost cutting.. We do seem very good at creating impressive results from limited funding and I am really hopeful for T31.

Absalon and Huitfeldt classes are great ships in my opinion and sometimes things don’t need to be exquisite, they just have to be very good all rounders.

Ben P

2.2/2.3% is more reasonable.


Good signs but way too early to slap him on the back.

Lee H

Morning all 2.5% now seems to be the unofficial target with 3% being the aspiration across all the government departments holistically. I would suggest the MoD, for the first time in a generation is in a strong position to receive a good settlement from HMT. This is down to a few reasons: 1. Current situation, the world is an unstable place at the moment as counties try and work out who they are and what they stand for. The Salisbury incident is a reminder that some of those countries have worked out who they are and how they want to… Read more »


A combination of annual spend trending upwards to reach a 2.5% of GDP target within a single election cycle PLUS capital spend for replacement CASD removed from the defence budget would be massive. That really would be enough to plug the black hole, fix existing personnel issues, increase headcount and make worthwhile additions to numbers in various places. I do wonder where the money would come from though. With the U.K. finally posting some figures showing us no longer running a deficit over whatever timescale those figures were for (probably only a single month or maybe a quarter, I forget)… Read more »


(Chris H) lee H – excellent set of comments there but can I gently disagree with: “3. We have a weak PM ….” Given how TM has worked her way through the minefield set by the EU in Brexit talks, how she has won every Parliamentary vote bar one on Brexit and how well she rallied international support for her position post Salisbury I don’t think she could be called ‘weak’. This label suits the Labour / Momentum mantras because all they have left is trigger phrases and slogans that sound great in their cosmopolitan echo chambers. So she doesn’t… Read more »

tim sinnett

Look at her response to the Syria situation now, Trump went to Macron first. She’s sidelined. When she speaks, it’s like a robot, not someone talking with passion and authority. She may have weathered a lot and be strong in that sense, but she does not eminate a strong leader image to the rest of the world. Hence why our current standing in the world is falling back. She needs to go and fast. Passion, conviction, and authority is what we need.

Lee H

Hi Chris(H)
I believe she manages very well, taking advice from her advisors and managing crisis’s as they arrive.
I do not think though she is a leader, someone who inspires others to follow, someone who inspires confidence in others.
Leaders have vision, they are brave enough to set the vision out, to have it picked at by others, strong enough to articulate the mission and empowered enough to execute it.
If TM has a vision I have yet to see it, her mission currently is to survive, currently she is executing that adaquately.

Levi Goldsteinberg

Really brilliant article, dare we dream of some good news coming our way come July and in the November budget?

Barry White

The state of things as they are at the moment can we wait until July or even the November budget


This analysis covers his impact as an effective departmental bread winner. The proof of his effectiveness will be how that bread is consumed.

Can he deliver a militarily useful Type 31 Frigate within the given cost and industrial constraints?

Can he make the Boxer procurement a catalyst to 4 actual modern deployable Mechanised Brigades?

Can he sort out future combat air and give the Anglo French FCAS project some impetus?


My understanding is that rejoining the Boxer program actually is the way you catalyse the creation of modern mechanised brigades. Seems to me that modular containerised designs allow you to optimise the configuration of the force you deploy. This thinking is sort of ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’. It reduces both procurment and maintenance costs, and increases flexibility. Boxer is an excellent product. I would not be surprised to see a similar approach adopted for the Type 31 design – lift on – lift off weapons modules which slot like tenons into ‘mortices’ in the superstructure. Not… Read more »

Lee H

Hi Peter
T31e doesn’t have cost constraints, it has a requirement – the requirement being a platform that is budgeted at £250m.
Industry is meeting that requirement, BAES are moaning about it but still bidding for it.
Boxer is an option to satisfy a requirement the Army still cannot work out (they have been trying since 1996 and wasted £1.7Bn in the process).
Expect FCAS to be pushed to the right – we need to sort out what we have got first, besides the French are looking to the Germans now.


Yes, because we all know how cynics came to rule the world…

Naivety is regrettable, but I would take cautious optimism any day, however naive, over your doom and gloom.

David Steeper

I’m sorry but i’m going to rain on every ones parade. First Williamson. I would seriously doubt if he’s ever had an original thought in his whole life. He simply repeats what ever the Chiefs tell him. Second taking Trident out of the MoD budget is possible but 2.5% will not happen. The reason is too many people in Whitehall know how the brass work and what their priorities are. Even if we get 2.5% I guarantee 10 – 15 years from now they’ll be back for 3.0% and threatening to cut any number of Regiments and squadrons if they… Read more »


Thank you for bringing the other side of the argument to the table. Some good points to ponder over. Just wondering how do you feel the current situation in Syria (with regards to Russia) will impact on the UKs (if not NATOs) defence spending? Seeing as how Russian jets buzzed the French frigate Aquitaine in international waters off the coast of Cyprus over the weekend. Has asked Iran to allow it to base bombers at one of its airfields (yesterday) and has promised to strike back at anything launching missiles into Syria (Ships/Subs/Planes)


Sorry I forgot to mention my point about the Aquitaine which was, no French ships have CIWS fitted relying entirely on missiles.

Paul T

farouk RE Aquitaine – not a CIWS as such but 1 x 76mm gun plus 3 x remote controlled 20mm cannons are not to be ignored for self defense.

David Steeper

Farouk the only people deserving of our support in Syria are the Kurds. If you want to understand how catastrophic the situation there is they’re under attack from our ‘allies’ Turkey.


David, I agree, the thing is the ME will always be the ME And even if the entire region falls to the followers of the religion of peace , they will still be fighting there for the next 3000 years. Maybe the world would be a better place if the US hadn’t have stopped the Israelis from carrying out the Samson Option in 1973 (A4 skyhawks on the pan armed with nukes) by agreeing to resupply them (Operation Nickel Grass) But whilst the region holds virtually the rest of the world to ransom with its hydrocarbon supplies we will have… Read more »


Yeah the world would be a better place if Israel Nuked the Arabs in 1973 ? The Middle East was ruined by Syces-Picot, we betrayed the loyal Arabs after WW1 and reneged on our promise to them to create a greater Syrian Arab homeland after the war. Us and France got a map and divided an entire region on spheres on influence not ethnicity or religion. That’s the anti-western historic reason, now we have the American Empire and the petro dollar.. 2001 Iraq stops selling oil in dollars and switches to Euro, within a year Iraq is invaded. 2009 Gaddafi… Read more »


Sole Survivor,
Thank you for you world reknowned world opinion based on Mr Corbyns book of facts on world history. I would really appreciate it, if you could point me in the direction of where I could purchase an electronic copy for my Kindle Paperlight. Oh hang on, Amazon is an American company. a papercopy so I can learn how to strike a blow for freedom by joining the Tooting Popular front.


Most modern historians and intellectual thinkers are well aware of the American empire and how it works, there are quite a few books on the subject.

Here is a tip for you, read a book instead of the news at 10 every night and you might learn something.


But SS,
I asked you to point me in the direction of a good read.


My reply is being moderate don’t probably due to the links, I will post again without.

You asked for a paper copy of a book on Jeremy Corbyns world facts, I’m struggling to find if it I’m being honest.

Here is a couple of good reads though ?

Google Rise and fall of American empire by Niall Ferguson and petro dollar warfare by William R Clark.


Thank you,
Here’s a small selection of books I have already read for your perusal:


Thanks, some decent books there ? in the context of this exchange though all but 2 have absolutely nothing to do with geopolitics in the Middle East, and even those two are debatable.

I’m not sure how much “tanks 100 years of evolution” is going to tell us about the petro dollar.

But fair enough for being well read on military strategy etc, it’s good to see.

I still stand by what I said in the first comment, US intervention in the Middle East has always been about power and money.


SS wrote: “Thanks, some decent books there ? in the context of this exchange though all but 2 have absolutely nothing to do with geopolitics in the Middle East, and even those two are debatable.” Will these suffice, apologies my ME copy is on my desk at work: As for disregarding the two books by Oren , try reading them before dismissing them, for example did you know that Egypt had its own plans to carry out a pre emptive strike on Israel days before the IDF carried out theirs. That strike was called off at the last minute… Read more »


I was not dismissing them totally, in the context of what we were discussing I don’t think they would give that much insight that’s all, they’re both probably great books.

And that’s interesting to know, if any article comes up about armored vehicles etc i’ll be sure to take your comments on them seriously seen as you have first hand experience in the subject.


“Shut up and go away”

That will sit proudly in great British quotes alongside Churchill’s very best I reckon.

He is doing a decent job though from what I can see.

Daniele Mandelli

So far I’m very pleased with Gavin.

I agree with the general consensus of the article.

Fingers crossed.

As for Harold, boy oh boy.


If anybody wishes to have a butchers at the British defence equipment plan 2017

Daniele Mandelli

Cheers farouk.

Daniele Mandelli

Initial thoughts.

The devil is in the detail, and there is a lot!

Notable that MoD will spend more on ISS than all other domains, Naval, Land, Combat Air etc, with the exception of Submarines, a whopping 44 Billion.

Interesting that that budget also includes costs of operating the AWE, Trident MIRV upkeep and updates, and not just the cost of Successor. I’d wondered on here before how the budget is so high.


Also rather dishonest in that the “technical issues” of projects are often the direct result of changes in requirements.


Forgive me mentioning what I suggested when these pages were alive with people saying we needed a ‘military person’ in place as Secretary of Defence. Penny Mordaunt (an excellent MP and now Secretary of State at DFID) was mentioned for example. My point then, and what we have seen since supports my view, is we did not need then and we do not now a military warrior in place. We needed a political warrior. Someone who knows who the internal enemies are, how to play the system, knows how to ‘lean’ on dithering MPs and has the ruthless streak to… Read more »


Sorry should have indicated its ‘Chris H’ ….


Shut up and go away


(Chris H) SS – listen Sweetcheeks you are no Gavin Williamson …. And if you don’t like the criticisms don’t make daft comments. Its really simple.

Lee H



“And if you don’t like the criticisms don’t make daft comments”

You said “we should be grateful is batting for the things we all deem important. (Except Peder, TH and SoleSurvivor of course….)

Why mention me? what daft comment have i made?

Or is it i have said an opinion that does not fit yours so you immediately throw me in the same hat as the resident trolls.


(Chris H) Harold – Only an inane Remoaner with a closed mind thinks that the opportunities and possibilities offered by Brexit are “a load of rubbish”. I take it you have never known a UK other than within the political structure of the EU? Or if you are older than 25 then possibly the EEC as well? Well some of us have and some of us believe in our country, our abilities and see that our future will be as good as WE make it and we will succeed or fail by OUR abilities not the dictates of some unelected… Read more »

Mark L

I’m 47 and I’m laughing at your smug pomposity Harold.


Well I did say at the time he had nothing to lose or fear, after Fallon had to go there was no chance Williamson would be sacked for pushing strongly for defence, and so it’s proved. I’d guess he’s got a bit to go yet to be the leader, so with any luck he’ll stay in defence for some time.

He comes out with soundbites, but it seems not to be just bark with him, there’s bite as well.


Promising start is all I’ll say. The issue is not the Minister for Defence but #s 10 & 11 Downing Street. Defence being the first duty of government but as there are no votes in defence we’ll hide behind the two most meaningless figures (2 & 0.7) in UK political history whilst comparing ourselves to European pygmies who’ve taken the proverbial at UK & US expense for far too long. May doubles down on the Aid budget at every opportunity so any change will have to come from elsewhere which is much harder to deliver. All eyes on MDP for… Read more »

Mark L

What doesn’t seem to get mentioned much is that Sterling has recovered most of it’s losses since the Brexit referendum, eliminating that part of the problem mentioned in the article.


Absolutely, Mark. A quick look at Google shows that just prior to the referendum in 2016, the pound was trading against the US dollar at about 1.43. Last summer when the mini SDSR was announced, the pound stood at 1.30 to the dollar. Currently, as of 16th April, it is at 1.42 to the dollar, so about at pre-referendum levels. As an example, an MoD purchase of an F35B at, say, $120m, would save the MoD £7.8m at today’s exchange rate as opposed to what the rate was last summer. A significant saving.


What’s the point in adding your link? This is for comments and discussion on defence and military matters, so either join in, discuss and debate, or go and stand outside parliament with a banner.

Andy A

How did we go from 6% of gdp too 2% with deterrent thrown in. Does everyone under 40 think the world is full of marshmellows and the usa will protect us. One day we may have to fight for our lives again just like 1930’s then god help us and the peace dividend.

Phil Chadwick

I like him. He seems to want to engage with the people on the ground. For example, when HMS Queen Elizabeth had her commissioning ceremony, he stood there chatting with a Lieutenant for a full 20 mins and was still at it even as the Queen herself was entering the hangar! I think he is really trying to fight our corner and I would not be in the least surprised if we see an increase in the Defence Budget to 2.5% of GDP as a result. It will certainly not be before time, and especially after what has taken place… Read more »