Ministers usually serve as apprentices – junior ministers – before they run departments. Gavin Williamson has been appointed to his first departmental ministerial role as Secretary of State for Defence.
Several of the interviewees in our Ministers Reflect series describe the Whips’ Office as a “great training ground” for being a minister. However, as Defence Secretary, Williamson is now in charge of the largest public sector workforce after the NHS, with a budget of £35 billion per year.
The international environment remains unstable and the defence budget is under severe pressure due to cost over-runs and excessive commitments made in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This will require difficult short-term decisions about cuts, and longer-term ones for the spending review being led by the National Security Council in the Cabinet Office.
If Williamson wants to prove his critics wrong, he should draw upon the advice of his predecessors. And he won’t find a better source than our nearly 80 Ministers Reflect interviews with former Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers.
Senior civil servants at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will have many issues they feel need quick decisions. But as a first step, Williamson must take the time to learn about the department and the armed forces: the MoD is a complex department, and often seems more so because of a world-class use of jargon.
Once he has found his feet, to be successful, Williamson then needs to set a manageable number of priorities and regularly follow up on them. This was a consistent theme from the Ministers Reflect interviews. For Liam Fox, speaking of his experience as Defence Secretary from 2010-11, that meant:
“Knowing what you want to do and communicating it very clearly and not being ambivalent or ambiguous about it.”
Driving these priorities cannot be done alone. Williamson must ensure he has an effective ministerial office. Ministers, according to the former Minister of State for Defence Nick Harvey:
“….have got to have a strong private office and they have then got to trust them to get on and make judgements on their behalf.”
Appointing effective special advisers is also important, and is often a priority that can easily slip down the list under the pressure of events.
Junior ministers are not always seen by secretaries of state as assets because of political rivalry. But the junior ministers at MoD have almost a decade of cumulative experience of the department. As the former Business and Housing Minister Mark Prisk says, a Secretary of State needs to see him or herself “as a team leader” of the other ministers.
Where the new Secretary of State finds effective decision-making structures, he should make full use of them. The Departmental Board, for example, brings together ministers and advice from the civil service, the military and non-executive directors, giving the Secretary of State a rounded picture. Mark Francois (Minister of State for Defence, 2012-15) found that:
“….the MoD Board was taken very seriously and was a genuine tool for exercising ministerial authority.”
A good dialogue with senior staff is important. Liam Fox, in his Ministers Reflect interview, remarked that:
“….the senior military, they had pretty much an open door. If they had a problem they could come and see me….I preferred them to come and tell me about their problems, rather than wading through paper.”
The Chilcot Inquiry showed how challenges to policy or accounts of what was really happening in Iraq were filtered out and did not always reach the top of the department. Williamson needs to challenge the advice he is given, and create an environment in which it is safe for others to challenge him and each other.
As Mark Francois says:
“If you go into the Ministry of Defence cold, with no military knowledge at all or no prior experience, it is a pretty steep hill to climb.”
We will find out how far Williamson has made it up that hill on 27 November at his first Oral Questions in Parliament. Williamson will need to put on a strong performance, particularly for his own backbenchers: many of whom consider themselves to be defence experts; and many of whom are critical of his appointment.
Explore Ministers Reflect, a collection of nearly 80 candid interviews with former ministers.