Insights on Conservative Party Conference: Defence

There have been easier lead-ins to Conservative Party Conference than an introduction to the Army on a visit to Salisbury Plain and a whistle-stop trip to Kyiv, but from listening to Grant Shapps over the last three days in Manchester it’s clear he wouldn’t have it any other way. Senior Consultant Will Gray offers his thoughts on what we at Luther Pendragon have learned about the new Defence Secretary:

It will be no surprise to anyone that Ukraine led the way in discussions about defence and security policy in Manchester this past week. The Defence Secretary was the first to remind fringe-goers that he hosted a family of Ukrainian refugees for more than a year, telling of a recent trip to Kyiv where he reunited with them. The UK’s support for Ukraine is clearly an immense source of pride for the new Defence Secretary, and justifiably so, but he was consistently pressed in Q&As on what more the UK could do. His predecessor Ben Wallace created choppy waters for him to navigate on this point by firing a broadside in The Telegraph on Monday morning calling on the Prime Minister to commit another £2.3 billion in military support to Ukraine, a 50% increase on how much the UK has committed so far. It also didn’t help that in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, first published online on Saturday evening, Shapp’s comments about the UK’s support for training Ukrainian troops was misconstrued as a commitment to boots on the ground in Ukraine, which sent a few hares racing. For the Defence Secretary, the answer on what the UK would do next do was “there are varying ways to fight and finance.”

Firstly, it would continue to lead advocacy for Ukraine on the international stage at NATO and via the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG, also known as the Ramstein Group), of which the UK was the founding member. It would also continue to provide military capabilities and technologies, including most recently Challenger 2 battle tanks, while being conscious of the need to challenge assumptions around military planning and tactics, and of there never being a silver bullet capability solution. Although, he did reference the FPV drones built in Ukrainian garages for less than £800 that are dealing such catastrophic damage to Russian forces, which led to questions about how he rationalised their cost vs. that of the UK-provided Storm Shadow cruise missiles, each of which costs roughly £2million. Here he said the UK needed to do more to support the emerging domestic supply chain, which has so successfully produced the aforementioned FPV drones, while welcoming the efforts of defence primes to increase their in-country footprints.

Praising the defence sector as a “power for good” and rallying against the calls from ethical investors to divest from defence companies did Shapps many favours in his first Conference outing as Defence Secretary. No doubt conscious of the efforts of the Labour Party to rebuild its credibility to the sector, and to the general public, he sought to undermine them wherever he could – referencing the previous Labour leadership’s position on Trident, for example. With the tables turned on Conference timetabling this year, Labour will come out fighting in Liverpool next week.

All was not rosy though, as the Defence Secretary put down a marker on procurement, seeking to reassure the Conference crowd conscious of his lack of military or defence industry background that he had the necessary experience from his time at various government departments to ensure that procurement is “fit for purpose” and that public money is being spent more effectively. Although with the future of HS2 dominating the headlines hacks were keen to point his three years as Transport Secretary…

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