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September is upon us once again. Memories of summer holidays are fading, nights are starting to draw in, and ministers are turning their attention to party conference season. But for the Department for Transport, September is also a time of preparation. This is when we get ready for the winter months ahead, so our transport network remains resilient in bad weather and travel disruption is kept to a minimum. Last year, I was reliably informed that our salt stocks were at a record high and we were extremely well prepared for the snow… Well, I’m pleased to say that our salt stocks are still at those same record levels!
For while 2010 will long be remembered as the year of severe snow and ice, last winter was the wettest on record. From the St Jude storm on 27 October onwards, seemingly unending heavy rainfall, high tides and flooding inflicted significant damage to our transport infrastructure across many parts of the country. Our rail network was badly hit, particularly in the south-west and most dramatically at Dawlish. Many local roads also took a battering, as did some of our ports as the result of turbulent seas and powerful tides, and Gatwick’s North Terminal was partially closed in the busy runup to Christmas.
We’ve provided help to clear up the mess and improve resilience for the future. That’s included £31m for ten rail projects across the south-west, £183.5m for councils to undertake urgent road repairs, and £2m to help our smaller ports get back into working order. In this year’s Budget we also announced a new £200m pothole fund – that’s enough to repair over 3m potholes across the country. And thanks to the efforts of an army of transport engineers – like those who rebuilt the vital Dawlish link in just a few months – much of that unprecedented damage has now been repaired and, in many instances, infrastructure has been made stronger.
The consensus among the scientific community is that extreme winter weather may become more common in future, so it is important that the country is as prepared as it can be. That’s why I commissioned Richard Brown, with excellent support from Brian Smith and John Curley, to undertake a review of the resilience of the transport network to extreme weather events. Their final report was published in July and looked at the impact of extreme weather on roads, railways, ports and airports.
The report was as comprehensive as it was far-reaching. It made some 60 recommendations for action by transport operators and central and local government. These ranged from short-term practical steps – such as those designed to improve basic maintenance of ditches, drains and vegetation – to longer-term recommendations, such as those on the economic signals and legislative provisions which have a bearing upon the resilience of our transport system.
As the report found, there is no silver bullet or single, instant solution that will make our transport network more resilient. What’s required is that everyone involved learns from what happened last year: that the likely impact of severe weather is anticipated, what’s needed to improve resilience is better understood and that services are brought back to normal more quickly.
We have been working over the summer with operators, local and central government to ensure the report’s recommendations are acted upon and we all have the right winter management plans in place. Whilst we cannot say with certainty what the coming winter will be like, it is possible that very severe weather may cause some disruption. If that happens, we will be doing everything in our power to fix any problems, minimise disruption and help keep Britain moving.
We can all take steps to ensure we are better prepared for the rigours of winter weather, from making sure our car tyres are in good order to draught-proofing rickety windows. From October this year, look out for the ‘Get Ready for Winter’ campaign. It is a partnership between the Met Office, Government and the voluntary sector, and will provide all the information that’s needed to help you survive the frosty mornings, snowy days and longer evenings in front of the fire over the coming months.
Patrick McLoughlin is Transport Secretary and Conservative MP for Derbyshire Dales
Since Coke of Norfolk sparked the agricultural revolution with the development of crop rotation, Britain has been leading the world in the way we grow, produce and eat our food. From the hi-tech labs at John Innes developing the latest strain of disease-free tomato to the gastropub, Britain is a leader in the field. We also play a major role in thinking on air, water and conservation.
This strength is vital to our economy and security. At its most basic, good flood defences, protection from disease outbreaks and food security are vital for investment into the UK. But it is about much more than that. We know how much we all benefit from a high-quality natural environment. People want to understand where their food comes from and have a better connection with the countryside where it is produced. They will increasingly choose where they live and work accordingly. And in raw economic terms, the share of GDP represented by food and drink is growing rather than declining. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. The whole industry, from farm to fork, contributes £97bn to the economy and employs 3.6m people.
As Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I want us to lead the world in this vital area. Our producers must have access to the latest techniques and the best skills. We need to make sure that the best use is made of our land, instead of pushing production overseas through perverse incentives. We should look at the countries that are becoming more competitive and learn from them – as well as the most productive sectors in the UK – to enable producers and manufacturers to do more and do better.
There has been a welcome revival in local food, whether it be the Large Black pig in Norfolk, Wensleydale cheese from Yorkshire or Cornish sardines. It is fantastic to see a step towards a rich food culture, away from the identikit food that bedevilled postwar Britain. We want to do what we can to promote it, increase consumer information, and highlight the benefits of shorter supply chains – eating locally and seasonally. This is about more than just the fantastic taste; it is about identity and connection to our landscape. In the Norfolk Brecks, unique flora and fauna coexist with arable and pig farming. Nearby in the Fens, the black fertile soil – a result of the draining of the land in the 17th century – is perfect for the protected designation Fenland celery.
We are making it easier for government departments, schools and hospitals to buy top-quality local produce, opening up £400m of new supply opportunities to British farmers. In the Defra canteen, we will now be eating British bacon – not Danish bacon – and we are also bringing the benefits of high-quality British food to people across the globe. We’ve been opening overseas markets from the US to China to Japan, increasing exports of UK food and drink by 7% since 2010.
Our consumers must have confidence and clear information about the food they buy. We are cracking down on food fraudsters trying to mislead the public with a new Food Crime Unit. We have improved country of origin labelling – from next year pork and lamb will have this label, following on from beef in 1999. We are enhancing food education so children understand where food comes from as well as nutrition and how to cook it. More consumers are choosing to eat high-quality British produce, with a 10% rise in British beef on sale at supermarkets this year.
We want farmers to be spending their time producing top-quality food, not form filling. I have called for an urgent review of the arbitrary three-crop rule which is part of the Common Agricultural Policy. We want farmers to be growing what the British public want to buy. Our earned recognition scheme means fewer duplicate inspections, saving taxpayers’ money and farmer time.
Maintaining our natural environment is vital to our country’s future. Over this parliament we will have planted 1m trees, have developed natural corridors and seen thousands of species better protected. We will shortly be completing further work to support bees and pollinators. Water is being better conserved and cleaned up. Defra has world-leading scientists informing policy, and I want the wider public to understand the science that underpins our work to support the natural environment.
Maintaining our biosecurity is vital to keeping our environment as disease and pest-free as possible, and to stopping invasive non-native species entering the UK. We take action pre-border as well as at the border in order to protect our native plants and wildlife. At the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency we have protected the number of veterinary staff and improved coverage to ensure we are resilient in the face of threats.
Earlier this year, we experienced the wettest winter in nearly 250 years. Our flood defences were battered by months of heavy rain. It is critical that those who work the land are involved in the solution, and that is why we are supporting Internal Drainage Boards and making it easier for farmers and landowners to play a role. We have protected frontline flood staff at the Environment Agency and increased our capital investment in flood defences. We are spending £3.2bn in this parliament compared to £2.7bn in the previous parliament, and have also set an unprecedented six-year capital spend commitment right up to 2021.
With the right approach we can continue to be at the forefront of global developments and ensure that in the years ahead we maintain our resilience, improve our natural environment and grow our food.
Elizabeth Truss is Environment Secretary and Conservative MP for South West Norfolk
The nationally protected Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in my constituency, and the irreplaceable natural heritage within it, are at risk of being destroyed and lost forever as a result of the planned construction of the current HS2 Phase One route between London and Birmingham.
Despite pledges from the Prime Minister that the Coalition would be the ‘greenest government ever’ and the publication of the Natural Environment White Paper in 2011 stating that AONBs are ‘national treasures’, the Chilterns AONB and our rural inheritance are under threat from an expensive HS2 project with a very weak business case.
The AONB is of national importance to the UK. It includes irreplaceable ancient woodland sites, ancient monuments, and a diverse woodland wildlife community. As a major tourist attraction, it is a site of considerable economic value to UK plc. Indeed, in 2007 just over 55m leisure visits (worth around £500m) were made to and within the Chilterns AONB, sustaining around 12,000 jobs and 500 businesses.
However, the Chilterns is the only AONB along the entire HS2 Phase One and Phase Two route that is adversely and significantly impacted by the proposed project. The design of the proposed route takes no account of the designated landscape of the AONB or the protective provisions of Part IV of the CROW Act 2000; and the route travels through the AONB at its broadest point. Under current proposals, only half of the line as it passes through the AONB will be in a bored tunnel. This means 10.4km of the route will be on the surface, causing significant and damaging environmental impacts.
As the HS2 Phase One Hybrid Bill select committee process gathers pace, I urge the Government and HS2 to reconsider the treatment of the nationally protected Chilterns AONB and accept proposals for a full continuous tunnel that would fully protect the entire AONB from the current HS2 route.
These proposals have even been accepted by HS2 Ltd engineers as practical engineering solutions and a more suitable environmental solution for the AONB. Indeed, the Government’s own Environmental Statement report in 2013 noted that the continuous tunnel proposals were feasible in engineering terms, and would perform better on environmental grounds compared with the current HS2 line route.
The continuous tunnel proposals are supported by parliamentarians from all sides of the House, and all local councils and action groups within the Chilterns AONB. Furthermore, the National Trust and English Tourist Board have highlighted the importance of the AONB and the need to consider all serious mitigation options to ensure the Chilterns are protected from the current HS2 route.
Like me, all these bodies have the protection and sustainability of the Chilterns at the heart of their missions. As stewards of our natural heritage, it is vital that we care for these special places on behalf of future generations. That is why I believe that a full, continuous tunnel through the Chilterns is the only option that best protects and safeguards the entire AONB and our rural inheritance from the current HS2 route.
Cheryl Gillan is Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham
Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“The 18th century is the period I feel really at home in…” William Hague says, as he sits back on the sofa in his Commons office. Instantly realising how otherworldly his words may sound, he swiftly adds “…apart from our own 21st century!”
The Leader of the House can’t help chuckling at his self-assessment, which is based more on his love of political history than a fondness for powdered wigs. But he’s deadly serious about the traditions of both Parliament and the Conservative party, and the need to connect both of them to the modern day.
And as he prepares for his final conference as a frontline politician next week, Hague is reflecting on his own long political history. It was in Blackpool in 1977, of course, where he first rose to national attention as a blonde-haired, Yorkshire-vowelled 16-year-old, taking to the stage to warn of the perils of a Conservative defeat in the next election. “And where would this country be if Margaret Thatcher hadn’t taken my good advice?” the now 53-year-old Hague jokes, that mix of intellectual confidence and self-deprecating humour undimmed all this time later.
In the preceding 37 years, Hague has given an “extraordinary number” of speeches to conference and, while he plays down any suggestion of sentimentality – “I’m not a big one for getting emotional, I have to say” – his final address this Sunday afternoon will hold a little more significance. And he hints that it will certainly have a different feel; rather than the usual frontbench conference speech, Hague will instead use his to make an impassioned wider argument for the merits of the party political system itself.
“One of the things in my mind is that in that 37 years, 26 of them in Parliament, I’ve worked in so many areas and achieved some things – failed in other things – you know, the Disability Discrimination Act that I did in 1995, things I did as Welsh Secretary, the efforts to revitalise the party after the defeat of 1997, all the work in the Foreign Office the last four years. But the Conservative party has been the vehicle for all of that,” he explains. “I am, in that sense, a tribal politician; I believe in a major political party as a vehicle for what individuals can achieve in their careers, as well as an expression of the instincts and wishes of a large part of the country. So it will be a moment for me to explain that, to try to explain to other people who will come in the future what you can still achieve through a political party.”
A party of individuals with “many differences of opinion and emphasis” is “very healthy”, he insists. “But you still need well-functioning and highly organised political parties for democracy to work well. The Conservative party is still the essential vehicle. At conference I want to make that argument.”
And when it comes to the issue which has most tested those differences of opinion, Europe, Hague urges his colleagues to go into the General Election next year with a united message. Several MPs have indicated they are preparing to campaign in May with a pledge to take the UK ‘out’ in an ‘in/out’ EU referendum in 2017, no matter what the outcome of any David Cameron-led renegotiation. But Hague warns against fracturing the party’s core message at the wrong time.
“On the main issues of a general election, it is of course much more effective for Members to clearly express the same view,” he says, pointedly. “And here the argument is that we need a referendum. Yes, people can go into different scenarios, but it’s very important not to be distracted from the Conservative party’s main argument, which is we will deliver, and guarantee delivering, a referendum. So I would recommend to colleagues not to get distracted. One of the big decisions at the general election is 'are we going to have a referendum on Europe'. We have to win the argument for that, not argue in advance about which way we’re going to vote in that referendum.”
But what about Bob Neill’s private member’s bill seeking to enshrine an in/out vote in law this side of May? While Hague says the Conservative leadership will “do our best” to fight for the bill’s passage, he’s realistic about its chances in the face of Lib Dem and Labour opposition. “You have to be cynical about the tactics that they will use,” he says. “They will use every possible tactic to use up time. And it’s difficult of course for a private member’s bill to get through against any significant opposition. We saw that last time.”
Would the Prime Minister be ready to use the Parliament Act if necessary? “Yes,” Hague replies, “but we have to get it to that position. And that means getting through some hoops in the House of Commons that we’re not yet through.”
Those legislative hoops may be giving some Conservative planners a headache over the Referendum Bill, but, when it comes to navigating the intricacies and complexities of parliamentary procedure, Hague himself is a self-confessed ‘nerd’ – and appears to be relishing being back in the thick of things.
“I’m one of those people who has that sort of mind – a slightly nerdish mind – for procedures and timings. I’m really comfortable with that,” he says. “I’m really enjoying being back into parliamentary procedure.”
After close to nine years on the Foreign Office brief in opposition and in government, Hague – long considered one of the great parliamentarians of his generation – is clearly glad to be back in the Palace of Westminster full-time. “I’ve always loved Parliament. And to be able, in this final stage of my political career, to spend this time here, mixing with the other MPs, lunching with them in the tea room – which is what I now do on a daily basis when the House is sitting – that’s very enjoyable, and quite refreshing for me.
“Of course, it’s quite a contrast, an enjoyable contrast; instead of moving around the world every day, I’m moving around Parliament. And for me there’s a sort of satisfying symmetry to it. I feel I built my political career in Parliament and campaigning around the country. And for this final stage I’ve come back to where I started to do the best I can at the very end.”
There may be only six months left until the dissolution of this parliament, but the new Leader of the House is not ready to take it easy yet. And while he admits the “big” reforms of this session – the introduction of elected Committee chairs and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee – are already in place, he’s clear there is more to be done to strengthen the House before May, and particularly to open it up to more public involvement. When the Youth Parliament sits for its next session in November, he will attend and speak. “I’ll be very proud”, he says, adding: “37 years ago I would have been one of them!” And while he has not seen any “specific proposals” to introduce some public element to Prime Minister’s Questions – as mooted by Ed Miliband – Hague says he would be “open” to looking at the idea. “I am in favour of more public involvement in Westminster. I don’t write it off at all.”
But where Hague believes real progress can be made before the election is in the use and expansion of e-petitions. “I think it would be great if in the next few months we could really make permanent and agree some of the arrangements for the future on this; to give Parliament greater ownership of it, and build it further into the modern political culture of the country,” he explains.
And as a keen scholar of the 18th century, Hague’s enthusiasm for the reform is naturally grounded in history. “In the campaign against the slave trade it was the great petitions, the only way then for most people of the country – most people didn’t have the vote – it was the sheer weight of these petitions from around the country that was the public’s engagement with Parliament. In recent decades, petitions have been seen as a bit of an anachronistic thing; people sign something, it goes in the bag at the back of the Speaker’s chair, and the Government issues a reply that no one particularly looks at.
“Now they are coming to life again; they are related again, at last, to whether something is debated on the floor of the House. And I think the system needs strengthening so that Parliament will have greater ownership of it, and it will be a stronger instrument of holding governments to account.”
The other big debate over parliamentary reform still to come is the Government’s Recall Bill. The plans have been met with scepticism from a number of MPs, with Zac Goldsmith warning last week it would still be “almost impossible” under the bill for voters to remove errant MPs. Chief Whip Michael Gove is understood to be speaking to disgruntled backbenchers about possible ways to strengthen the proposals. Is there scope for further improvements?
“This is a government bill, and government whips in both parties will be asking MPs to support it. Of course, it is a bill where there will be a lively debate about various amendments to it. And the Government will listen to people’s points of view – there isn’t a single golden answer on recall,” he replies, appearing to leave the door open to further change. “But taking all views into account and all options into account, we have produced what we think is best, which is the bill we’ve published, and we will argue for that. That will be quite a significant change. So this is an institution that is reforming. And I do hope I can use my long career in frontline politics to strengthen overall the reputation of this institution as one that is prepared to reform itself.”
Of course, the fallout from the Scottish independence referendum means that constitutional reform is now very much on the agenda at Westminster. Interviewed before the result, Hague is wary of giving any official government view, but it’s clear where his own sympathies lie. Asked if it is now inevitable that there will be a clamour for Scots MPs to be barred from voting on non-Scots tax matters, he replies: “Of course there are very legitimate points that are being made about the position of England or England and Wales, when Parliament is considering matters relating only to England and Wales. While not commenting at the moment on what the Government collectively will decide about this, if you go back to my 2001 election campaign I campaigned for what we then called ‘English votes on English laws’. That has always been my previous position: devolution will ultimately have important consequences for how Parliament worked and that we’d reserve some matters for English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, and in some cases English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. So I come at it from that direction, [that] is one thing I can say.”
Hague stresses that while all three main parties agree on the process for more Scottish devolution, they have not yet decided the content. “Depending on the content of that, there will be completely legitimate and important considerations about how we then ensure our democratic procedures are fair to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland,” he says. Does he have a sneaking sympathy then for John Redwood’s claim that the ‘slumbering lion’ of English devolution may now wake up? “I advocated important change on this in 2001,” he says again. “But the policy is one that I and the PM will settle with our colleagues after the referendum, and I can’t prejudge that.”
In fact, Hague’s record on the issue stems back even further. In 1997 he warned that Labour’s devolution plans would “slowly, inevitably” lead to “tensions within the UK”. Does he stand by that?
“I was right! In 1997 I argued that the establishment of a Scottish parliament would lead to demands for independence. And the argument at that time of the Labour leadership, I think the phrase used was ‘it would kill demands for independence stone dead’ [George Robertson uttered the memorable phrase]. And our analysis, those of us who opposed devolution then, was the correct one. That is now very clear.
“Now we are democrats, so when the referendum went very heavily in favour of a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, narrowly, it was also the right decision to try to make that work. It would have been a rather undemocratic and out-of-touch stance to say ‘well, we are not participating in it’. We have to work with what democracy produces. But we were right in 1997.”
The Commons has also faced calls to reform its own internal affairs of late, in the wake of the row over the next Clerk of the House. Hague wasn’t on the recruitment panel or Commons Commission and stresses: “I’m not going to say anything that makes it harder for all involved to resolve this matter.”
But he does favour a “forward-looking” solution. “I do think it’s very important that Members have complete confidence in whoever is giving advice as the Clerk, in terms of constitutional, procedural advice, and that they can do so without fear or favour. I also think it’s very important, as we come up to immense decisions about the restoration and renewal of this building, that everybody has confidence that it is run in the most efficient way.”
Given this emphasis on MPs having confidence in procedural advice and on efficient running of the building, is he in favour of splitting the two roles? “Don’t assume… Both those things have to happen, but there are various different ways you can do that. Yes, there are arguments for splitting the roles, but the previous reports into this subject always come out against that, partly on grounds of not creating institutionalised conflict. It will be very important in any solution not to have competing and conflicting posts created. So how you reconcile that, this is up to the Select Committee, it’s up to the House.”
As well as being Leader of the Commons and First Secretary of State, Hague also retains his place on the National Security Council. Having seen the Vladimir Putin regime up close as Foreign Secretary, he believes Russia’s actions in Ukraine require a firm diplomatic and economic response. The West will have to prepare for a “different state of relations” with Moscow over the next decade, he says. “This is a new, 21st-century form of state-on-state hostility…a new form of how to invade or violate another nation. And that means that our response to that has to be brought up to date.”
He also retains an interest in two of his personal initiatives at the Foreign Office: preventing sexual violence in conflict and the illegal wildlife trade. Reminders exist in the shape of photos of him and John Kerry and Angelina Jolie, plus a carved wooden rhino, all brought from his FCO office to their new Commons home.
Hague is particularly proud of the global summit he organised with Jolie’s help and is pleased with some progress since (a special fringe meeting on the subject is planned for party conference). Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia have recently adapted their military training to highlight the issue of rape and exploitation in conflict zones. “Of course this does not mean that this has yet changed the situation on the ground, but it is that vital next step of governments around the world starting to take action themselves. So we will keep up our work, pushing it forward.”
Still, what did he make of the way some newspapers described him as ‘Hollywood Hague’ and ‘starstruck’ when he was photographed with Jolie and Brad Pitt this summer? “I do have a very thick skin,” he smiles. “I’m not influenced by these things. And in a way, unless there is some criticism of what you do, there is no edge to it. This was a groundbreaking summit, it gave hope I think to millions of people in the world and nothing will ever put me off doing that sort of work.”
As a lifelong member of the World Wide Fund for Nature, another passion is his campaign to tackle the illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn. He still chairs the ministerial group on the issue, and intends to keep working on both campaigns after he leaves the Commons next year. “As with just about everything else about life after May, while I do have in my head the areas I want to work on and I’m very excited about that, I haven’t entered into any arrangement with anybody and I won’t for some time,” he says.
One big change from the FCO is that he now gets to see wife Ffion much more. “She’s not pushed me into my decision about bringing to an end my career in the House of Commons, but she’s very pleased that now we can spend more time together and that is part of the reason.”
After his hectic schedule as Foreign Secretary, the prospect of taking up a new post as EU Commissioner or Nato Secretary General didn’t appeal. “To go and live in Brussels, while my wife has a business in London, would just not be my idea of improving the quality of life,” he says. “So really my decision is to do something that isn’t a fixed job. To do all the things I’ve always wanted to do.”
Lest anyone think that he’s putting his feet up between now and May, Hague points out he will combine his Commons duties with a new role campaigning around the country “as energetically as I ever have”. “I will be going round the marginal seats; I will be giving a lot of my time to the party and to the campaign between now and 7 May.”
Once the election is over, he will properly set about sorting life after the Commons. With acclaimed books on Pitt (William, that is, not Brad) and Wilberforce under his belt, is he planning to write another biography? “I will certainly write. I haven’t yet discussed with any publisher or agent what I will write, but I’m sure it will include history. I might write about my own experiences, although I can’t see me writing a long, dry memoir. I haven’t worked out how to do that. So these are areas I’m looking forward to tackling, but I will sit down after May and start to make a detailed plan.”
In the corner of his office, a bust of Pitt the Younger looks on impassively at the Leader of the House as he talks of his exit strategy. It prompts the thought: didn’t Pitt once step down only to make a comeback three years later? “Yes, and it killed him as well,” Hague deadpans. “I will not be following his illustrious example…”
HAGUE ON…PARLIAMENT’S REPUTATION
“This is one of the great institutions in this country and the world. Perhaps the greatest of all our democratic institutions. It needs strengthening and improving – but it needs understanding and to be cherished”
HAGUE ON…MORE EARLY COMMONS SITTINGS
“Personally I would be sceptical. I think further bringing forward the hours of the House, in my experience as a minister, would make it quite difficult for Government and Parliament to both get their work done during the day. So we have to bear that in mind – you can’t fill up all the, what are regarded, as normal office hours with Parliament sitting.”
HAGUE ON …RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA
“[After the 2008 Russian conflict in Georgia]…Europe went back to readily to business as usual. We do have to be ready for a different state of relations with Russia now in the next decade. We hope that is not a prematurely hostile state of relations. But it’s different, and we have to understand what has happened.”
HAGUE ON...LIFE AFTER THE FCO
“This the first summer I’ve been able to read one or two books and catch up with life a little bit. Although I remain very busy.”
HAGUE ON…STAYING ON THE NSC
“It can be useful in the National Security Council to have a minister who has experience but does not have a departmental agenda or departmental brief in the meeting.”
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“I’m sure you know your Tigris from your Euphrates… Here’s Sinjar mountain; it’s a huge area, it’s a mountain range really...”
Michael Fallon is in his element, pointing to key locations on a big map of northern Iraq in his office at the MoD. Similar maps of Libya and eastern Ukraine lie at the foot of his easel, all interchangeable and ready for action. And action is what the new Defence Secretary has seen plenty of since his appointment in the summer reshuffle. Within days of taking office, he had to deal with Russia’s interference in Ukraine, the murderous barbarism of Islamic State and the near collapse of Libya as a functioning state.
“It’s been continuous,” Fallon says, referring to endless emergency Cobra meetings and his authorisations for RAF sorties, army battle group exercises and naval deployments. He’s been to Helmand and Poland, Glasgow and Salisbury Plain, in quick succession. “It’s a 24/7 department. Things happen here round the clock. Troops, aircraft, ships are moving every night and every day. I’ve been in three other departments and this is unlike any other.”
Fallon is used to being busy. In his previous post as joint Energy and Business minister, he was renowned for the way he would beetle up and down Whitehall between his two offices. “Sometimes I literally had to run between the two. I used to have meetings with an official as I walked, because there wasn’t time,” he reveals. His DECC office drawer was always stuffed with a ready supply of Nature Valley granola bars to give him an energy boost. The energy bars still provide his daily fuel, yet the Ministry of Defence represents a different order of magnitude of busyness. And with growing signs of a fresh military campaign in Iraq, the threat posed by Islamic State terrorists is taking up much of his time.
But the prospect of UK forces returning to the region has made both parliamentarians and military types warn that lessons of the recent past need to be heeded. General Sir Peter Wall, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, said Britain could not get sucked into another Middle East campaign without having a proper understanding of the situation on the ground and sufficient firepower and strategy to deliver. As the drumbeat for air strikes gets louder, does Fallon think we’ve learned from our last experience in Iraq?
“This has to be planned, it has to be sustained,” he says. “This is going to be a long-drawn campaign which we have to be careful, methodical and measured about. But equally, there’s a determination right across Nato to tackle ISIL. Because if we don’t, it comes back on us.” So, the UK’s armed forces will be in it for the long haul? “John Kerry has estimated two to three years; that looks like a long haul to me. But we have to face up to this. This kind of extremism has been spreading, taking root in democracies.”
Just how the US and UK line up against ISIL remains to be seen. The day we meet, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond indicates that “Britain will not be taking part in any air strikes in Syria”, only for No 10 to swiftly insist that all options are still open. Asked if Syria is completely off the agenda at the moment, Fallon stresses how dissimilar Damascus is from Baghdad. “They are different countries,” he says. “Everything we’ve done in Iraq so far, every flight, every delivery has been with the permission or at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Everything we are doing in Iraq we are authorised to do. And that doesn’t apply to Syria, so it’s a different legal situation and it’s also a different military situation because of Syria’s quite formidable air defence system. So clearly any approach in Syria will have to be different to that in Iraq.
“But it is the new government of Iraq that we need first to help. It’s only just been formed and we need to rally moderate Arab opinion behind it, we need to make sure it’s inclusive and we need to get the international community to support it and to help it repel ISIL and to drive it back from the territory it’s claimed.”
Crucially, he seems to leave his options open about Syria, while recognising the constraints on any military action. “You’ve got Assad’s forces fighting the opposition groups – including moderate opposition groups – but the enemy is ISIL. The international community, one way or another, has to deal with ISIL.”
And the threat posed by ISIL to Britain and other nations cannot be overstated, he suggests. “I was really struck at the Nato summit by countries as far apart as Norway and Australia concerned about returning fighters, about the threat from re-importing terrorism. We all have a very direct interest; Britain does above all. We’ve seen already terrorist attacks here: the London Tube, London buses, the murder of Lee Rigby, the attack on Glasgow airport; we’ve already been under attack from this kind of extremism, and we have to deal with it.”
The recently raised threat level reflects intelligence that a Mumbai-style attack on UK civilians is the scenario most feared by Government. “We have done a lot of planning on that,” he says. “We have prepared for this kind of contingency, and I obviously don’t want to get into detail on it. But we have one priceless advantage here, which is the quality of our armed forces. Both regulars, special forces and in terms of equipment we are able to respond to that threat, and one of my jobs alongside the Home Secretary is to make sure that we can keep our people safe – that’s something we have to be vigilant about every day.”
Vulnerable states like Lebanon, Kuwait and Jordan need protecting too, he stresses. “We are offering support and training to Iraq and Syria’s neighbours. There are many other ways we can help with logistics, supplies, surveillance, sharing intelligence. There are lots of other things we can do before it comes to direct military action. But we shouldn’t resile from direct military action if ISIL is going to be defeated. This isn’t about containment. This is about the defeat of ISIL.”
As for timetables for action, Fallon is understandably coy, but yet again keeps his options open for any strikes during the conference season. “We have to see the new Iraqi government find its feet, show that it is properly inclusive. There will also be further discussions at the United Nations General Assembly… But in the last resort, if the security of this country is at risk we can’t wait for the parliamentary timetable.”
Just as our armed forces gear up for action in Iraq, withdrawal from Afghanistan continues apace. With the pull-out deadline of the end of this year looming, is he convinced the Afghans are ready? “We are leaving a legacy of security there. There’s no guarantee Afghanistan will be completely stable, but we’ve given them every chance of a stable, secure future and we can be proud of that. It’s been a hard-won legacy with a lot of sacrifice along the way.”
Failing to honour that sacrifice is what worries some critics of the current pull-out plan. Lord Richards, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, told The House earlier this year of his dismay at the way the Prime Minister appeared to be opting for an accelerated timetable for withdrawal, wondering if No 10 “had learned nothing” from the way ISIL had been allowed to take on the Iraqi army after the US and UK pull-out.
Fallon respectfully disagrees. “We are giving Afghanistan every chance of a stable future. David Richards is a very experienced soldier, but if we had not set a deadline for withdrawal we would not have got the Afghan National Army to step up to the plate – which they are,” he says. “I’ve been to Helmand, I’ve met them. I’ve seen how they are taking the fight to the Taliban. They are now conducting over 90% of operations, taking on some of the toughest fighting and ready to defend their country thanks to our training and mentoring, but also because we set a deadline and they’ve had to now take up that responsibility. And they are ready for it.”
Under Fallon, the MoD certainly seems to be looking forwards, not backwards. Whereas Philip Hammond arrived with a reputation as a bean counter, Fallon clearly has an affinity with the military chiefs, not least given his own family ties. In the Second World War, his father served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps and his mother nursed for the Royal Navy in Haslar hospital in Portsmouth.
While careful to pay tribute to Hammond’s parsimonious approach, Fallon exudes the confidence of a Defence Secretary who knows his department will be in demand in coming years. And, after the morale-sapping rounds of redundancies of recent years, investment is once more taking place. “The last of the redundancies were in June, and because we’ve sorted the budget we are able to invest again. In terms of spending we start in a much better place. We have a defence budget that has been balanced thanks to Philip Hammond’s painstaking work.”
With the 2015 Strategic Defence Review expected to set out the fresh threats to the UK, the emphasis appears to be on spending rather than cuts. Fallon says he looks forward to the chance to look again at the challenges facing Britain’s armed forces. “The world has not become a safer place since SDR ’10, that’s for sure,” he says. The defence budget is “in a far better place than we were in 2010”, he adds, a situation underlined by the UK meeting the Nato commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence.
Yet while that commitment lasts until 2016, some say the Tories should go further and make a manifesto pledge to extend it for the whole of the next parliament. Will the rank and file in Birmingham get that promise next week? “Conference would love to hear the manifesto… They may not get the whole of the manifesto,” he smiles. “It’s been a huge achievement in a very difficult fiscal climate to get to 2%. We have a prime minister and a chancellor who absolutely get defence, who are committed to it. The Chancellor has played a huge part in enabling that.” But, he adds pointedly: “Having got there, I obviously don’t want to see us fall back again.”
It’s not just the rise of ISIL that has shaken the defence kaleidoscope for the West. Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine has made Nato reconsider just how much of the post-Cold War peace dividend remains. Within days of taking up his post, Fallon flew to Poland to show solidarity with eastern European Nato members and announce a new joint military operation, Exercise Black Eagle, due to start next week.
“It’s not symbolic,” he says. “This is a huge commitment. I’m sending a full battle group – 1,300 troops, over a hundred tanks and armoured vehicles. This is a full-scale exercise – the biggest for six years in Poland – and a demonstration that we are reassuring Nato members on their eastern flank and sending a pretty clear message to President Putin that Nato is going to defend itself.”
Fallon has taken a hard line with Moscow, stressing the need for the EU to coordinate its response with the US. “We need to have more sanctions in reserve,” he says. “The sanctions [so far] seemed to have worked. As we stepped them up, Putin did respond; sanctions are beginning to damage the Russian economy. They’ve impacted on Russian GDP, they’ve put up inflation in Russia. The solution to this can only be political and economic, it can’t be military. But President Putin has to understand that he cannot invade a sovereign independent country in the way he has.”
And despite threats to ban Western airlines from Russian airspace, does he think that Russia has a lot more to lose from any tit-for-tat reactions to tougher sanctions? “Yes. In terms of economics, it’s a war that they can only lose. And in terms of politics too, if they want to put themselves outside the international order, that will be their loss.”
Nigel Farage famously described Putin as a “brilliant” operator earlier this year, and Fallon is withering in his assessment of the UKIP leader’s “completely misguided” approach. “What Putin has done is completely beyond the bounds of international law and acceptability,” he says. Referring to Farage’s claim that the EU had “blood on its hands” over Ukraine, he adds: “It shows how little he understands about international affairs and how dangerous it would be to vote for a Russian-loving UKIP party. The MH17 shooting is being investigated, but it’s pretty clear it was brought down by a missile that had been supplied across the border from Russia. If anybody’s hands are stained with blood, it’s Putin’s.”
As for UKIP more generally, and the threat they pose to the Conservative party at the next election, Fallon insists there is only one response. “We fight back by persuading the public that only the Conservative party can deliver the referendum that they want. UKIP can talk, but only this party can deliver a clear choice on Europe.”
The rise of the SNP, as well as UKIP, has been a more pressing concern of late. Fallon, who was born and brought up in Scotland, insists that “there hasn’t been any contingency planning” for a Yes vote. No 10 tried to inject some passion into the campaign last month by flying the Saltire over Downing Street. But there was a claim that during the Commonwealth Games this summer, the Defence Secretary had vetoed a plan to allow the Red Arrows to trail blue and white Scots-themed smoke.
Asked if the story is true, Fallon doesn’t deny it. “The Red Arrows always use red, white and blue, so there was no reason to depart from that. But the Games were a success. The Royal Air Force is as much a part of Scotland as England.”
One other change from the Hammond era seems to be a willingness to engage more with the media. Lord Richards has criticised as misguided the edict that military chiefs could no longer meet journalists privately. And only recently, it appeared that Hammond had authorised a new restriction requiring all serving members of the armed forces to contact the MoD’s media team if they encountered any journalist or thinktank academic in a social setting.
Fallon seems surprised when told of the curb, saying “I’ll look into that”. But he stresses that his approach is one of openness, with the usual security limits. “This is not a Stalinist operation. I had the defence correspondents to breakfast on Monday.” So is there a thaw in media relations going on? “There’s a thaw. I invited defence correspondents to accompany me in Helmand, I’ll be taking other correspondents to Poland to witness Black Eagle. My door is open.”
That door has certainly been busy of late, with those maps of Libya, Iraq and Ukraine all featuring in briefings with military chiefs. For Fallon, the most important fact about his new job is the quality of the servicemen and women he now leads. And as the UK faces new threats in the 21st century, they are more important than ever. “Wherever you go to meet our armed forces, you meet some of the finest men and women you could meet,” he says. “And that, in the end, is the best reassurance we can give our people.”
FALLON ON… TAKING ON ISIL
“This is a very direct British interest and our armed forces are ready for it.”
FALLON ON… ‘BOOTS ON THE GROUND’
“We’ve been very clear we are not sending British troops into combat in Iraq. But what we are doing is going after ISIL with the rest of the international community.”
FALLON ON… PARLIAMENT’S AUTHORISATION
“In general terms, military action in Iraq or in Syria should be endorsed by Parliament and I hope it will be.”
FALLON ON… RUSSIA IN CRIMEA
“Crimea is part of Ukraine under international law. It’s an illegal occupation.”