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Cash on its own will not resolve endemic problems in the MoD – we need serious reform

Cash on its own will not resolve endemic problems in the MoD – we need serious reform
4 min read

The argument for greater defence spending is rightly gaining momentum but money itself is not enough to resolve serious issues within the MoD, says Johnny Mercer

When the proposals were first put forward to remove HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark from the fleet last autumn, I canvassed fellow MPs on the Conservative benches to sign a letter to the Prime Minister, Chief Whip and Defence Secretary informing them that we would not countenance any further reduction in this nation’s defence capabilities or spending.

Since that weekend last October when colleagues were wholly supportive, the national debate around defence spending has grown inexorably. Most of this has been helpful; some has not. I’m afraid the hordes of tanks are for yesterday’s wars.

If one removes the emotion around defence, we are actually looking at the fastest growing department’s budget – the third highest defence spend in the world and still – yes still – world class capabilities, often at reach, committed to over 70 operations worldwide. But I accept there is a serious gap in this message and how it feels not only to those who serve, but the British people who pay for – and take extreme pride in – their armed forces.

So, what has gone awry? That needs a book, not an article like this. In a nutshell, we have paid over the odds for poor equipment that by the time it comes into service, is already out of date. The culture of the Ministry of Defence is almost entirely process driven – see the £100m+ Iraq Historical Allegations Team shut down last year without a single successful prosecution.

In short, the leadership teams (military and civilian) have simply not been good enough to meet the challenges of a changing defence arena, seemingly unable to actively differentiate between what is important and what is not, what really matters in defence and what doesn’t, and crucially never truly believes it can do anything wrong – hence it will never learn.

It is a deeply frustrating situation – not least as Conservatives, who have historically called ourselves the ‘party of defence’.

The chorus around military spending is now so overwhelming amongst colleagues that I’m confident we will bridge the funding gaps that currently exist in equipment programmes and current capability shortfalls. But it would be a yet another serious fool’s errand to think that simply cash will resolve some endemic problems in that department.

What is the future? What does the British Military need to look like in 10 or 15 years’ time? How are we going to blend the mix between conventional defence spending and what the prime minster told me last week “could not traditionally be thought of as defence spending?” I cannot honestly argue with Philip Hammond for more money for defence without serious reform in that department.

Where to start? The top-level budget holder responsibilities as outlined in the Levine reforms have not really worked. The notion that a variation in the markets of materials required for the new nuclear submarine programme can directly lead to a reducing of the quality of life of our servicemen and women through constrictions on hire cars for funerals and mobile phones for exercises – is weapons-grade nonsense, and a symptom of a terribly designed system.

The Modernising Defence Review has much work to do. I want to see an exciting vision that will fundamentally shift the dial on the conversations up and down this proud country when it comes to our military.

This is a unique opportunity to change the narrative for our most precious assets – our people who serve. They are tired of the negativity; the offer we as a nation make in exchange for military service has indeed steadily declined to unacceptable levels for them.

This offer covers it all: equipment, veterans care, mental health provision, pay, accommodation – a truly ‘whole force’ approach to match the world-leading professionalism of our people. With humility, the MoD can do it. Many of us will be watching. 


Johnny Mercer is Conservative MP for Plymouth, Moor View and a member of the Defence Select Committee

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