Philip Dunne is a Big Spender, big enough to make even Shirley Bassey raise one of her eyebrows. But – and it is a very big but – he’s also a bit of a Scrooge. He’s very careful how he spends the billions of pounds at his disposal, which is a jolly good job because it’s our money.
A couple of months ago Mr Dunne was called into 10 Downing Street and told by David Cameron that he wanted him to move from the Government whips office to become the minister responsible not only for buying Britain’s defence equipment, but also for helping to sell the products of the UK defence industry to foreign governments.
Being moved to the Ministry of Defence was the last thing the MP for Ludlow expected: “I’m sure you realise,” he told the Prime Minister, “that I have no military background. I was a member of the Air Squadron at Oxford University, but that was the pinnacle of my military career.”
Mr Dunne doesn’t have a background in military matters, but he does have a background. That’s so unlike so many of today’s politicians who have never had a proper job, moving from university to become a party hack, political adviser, and, if they are lucky or clever enough, onto the parliamentary candidates’ list.In his time, the Shropshire MP has been a farmer and a banker, and has co-founded a national chain of bookshops – Ottakar’s, which was sold to Waterstones in 2006. So he knows what a balance sheet looks like.
And that’s precisely why David Cameron wanted him in the Ministry of Defence. He wanted someone with a business background who would tackle the job with no preconceptions.
The change of government jobs has made Mr Dunne an even busier man than he was before. But he insists that it won’t result in any neglect of the people of Ludlow and surrounds.
“My new ministerial and existing parliamentary duties will not prevent me from continuing to look after the concerns of my constituents in south Shropshire. I shall continue to spend most Fridays and Saturdays in the constituency as before. Sunday remains for my family,” said the Ludlow MP.
The pressures on his time have undoubtedly mounted, however. When I turned up for our interview in the Ministry of Defence’s Main Building in Whitehall I was told he was on the telephone, but that he would be only a few minutes. In the end it turned out to be 40 minutes.
The wait gave me time to look around the ministerial waiting room where there are photographs of soldiers patrolling and talking to local men in Afghanistan, a painting of HMS Daring, and three wonderful black-and-white photo-portraits of the then last surviving veterans of World War One, the late Harry Patch, Bill Stone and Henry Allingham.
These three and the Afghanistan photographs give the room at least some atmosphere, which is more than can be said about the rest of the building (at least the bits they let you see).
Main Building is no doubt as functional as its name, but its corridors are soulless, and its architecture is another reason why it is known by journos as The Kremlin. What a contrast with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office across the road.
An early highlight was his meeting with lunar astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who is on a mission to secure international co-operation and backing for continued human exploration of space.
Both the waiting room and Mr Dunne’s office contain models of unmanned drones, a sign of the changing face of modern warfare.
The Minister for Equipment, Support and Technology’s section controls around £14 billion expenditure per annum, roughly 40 per cent of the nation’s defence budget.
“We deal with everything from food to fighter planes. About half of that sum goes on new kit (in military terms, kit includes everything from rifles to warships), and the other half goes in support to our armed forces,” said Mr Dunne.
He spent the first two months in his post finding out the “needs and requirements” of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Then he moved onto the suppliers of defence equipment, the companies which make up Britain’s defence industry.
What about the importance of the defence industry to the UK economy? Mr Dunne had the figures in front of him: it contributes £2 billion in tax to the Exchequer each year; it provides 300,000 jobs; and it is worth around £35 billion to the wider economy.
The defence of the UK is in one way rather like the National Health Service. You could spend as much as you like on it, and it still wouldn’t be enough. So, in these austere times, there have been cuts, including jobs on the procurement side – from 20,000 to 17,500 so far, and an aim of 15,000 by 2015. That “efficiency drive” has mainly affected civil servants, but some uniformed jobs have also gone.
“Under the last government, we had a fantasy procurement programme which resulted in a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. We are now in a better place than we have been for the last couple of decades,” said the minister.
Mr Dunne described the “better place” as a spending envelope which will involve £160 billion expenditure over 10 years, but which will also have sizeable contingency sums built in.
He acknowledged that for years spending on some procurement programmes was effectively out of control, with overspend frequently pushed into the next year’s figures to try to disguise this.
“Some difficult decisions had to be made to cut some programmes. The toughest decisions have now been made. My task is to make sure we fit within that environment in the future and to see that we are more efficient and more effective in the way that procurement activity is organised.”
Until Mr Dunne took up his new role, procurement was separated from exports of UK defence equipment. Peter Luff was the buying minister while selling came under the remit of Gerald Howarth.
“You could say I am both customer and collaborator. I want to help British defence companies to responsibly sell their goods abroad,” he said.
The complex system of export licences is largely dealt with by the Foreign Office, thus avoiding a potential conflict within the MoD by protecting the department from pushing exports to “undesirable regimes”.
Popping on his diplomat’s hat, Mr Dunne didn’t want to name which countries he considered to be among the “undesirables”, but plainly the Government doesn’t want to end up with a situation, for instance, where UK-manufactured arms are being used by Bashar al-Assad against his own people.
Despite the necessary restrictions, the United Kingdom is the second biggest defence exporter in the world with a market share of 15 per cent worth £5.4 billion. But can these figures be improved at such a difficult time for the world economy?
“I am keen to see that the defence industry plays its part in the growth agenda,” said the minister.
One specific problem just around the corner is the future of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. What happens to the nuclear submarine base at Faslane if the people of Scotland back the anti-nuclear SNP’s bid to leave the union?
“The Government is very clear that we are looking forward to the people of Scotland supporting the union,” said Mr Dunne, who was also quick to point to some of the repercussions if the SNP gets its way.
The two Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers on order are due to be put together at Rosyth, but, in a separated Scotland, the shipyard and other manufacturers based north of the border would have to compete against other countries from the EU and beyond for defence orders placed at Westminster.
The Ludlow MP also pointed out that Faslane on the Clyde is the largest single defence site in the UK, employing 6,000 people.
“The SNP’s defence policy requires very considerable scrutiny,” said the minister, with masterly understatement.
While Mr Dunne was appointed in a bid to keep Ministry of Defence spending on the ground, he is occasionaly able to reach for the skies.
An early highlight was his meeting with lunar astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who is on a mission to secure international co-operation and backing for continued human exploration of space. Space security is another of the defence technology minister’s responsibilities.
Now that is a daunting task: securing the Final Frontier . . .