A “Minister for Portsmouth”?

I was a bit harsh, perhaps, the other day when I said on Twitter it was “gimmickry” that Michael Fallon has been assigned to be “Minister for Portsmouth”. Vince Cable has been quick to rubbish the appointment, and since he is usually wrong, perhaps there is something in the idea.  But it’s a slap in the face for Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who welcomed Fallon enthusiastically.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the state of the Lib Dems, who in this age of Rennard and Hancock hardly seem to know how to behave towards each other.  Perhaps the appointment of Michael Fallon is a response to the uselessness of our Lib Dem-controlled city council – Westminster imposing “direct rule”.

Fallon is a very capable politician, who would have a big Cabinet job were the Cabinet not encumbered by the Lib Dems.  There is also an excellent Tory precedent for this kind of special measure if we go back to Michael Heseltine’s role in Liverpool in the early 80s.  The people of Liverpool evidently think so – he was granted the freedom of that city a couple of years ago.  The part-time MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, emerged from his bunker to welcome the appointment, also recollecting the Heseltine connection.

However, the political situation has not advanced much since the announcement of the decision to end shipbuilding.  The initial government response was to wave at us a series of measures and money that were coming our way anyway, having been announced some time before the closure.  I don’t think anyone was fooled by that, and the City Deal that has been confirmed is a better deal for Southampton (who we are yoked with in this) than it is for Portsmouth.  Any money is welcome, but let’s not get carried away.  Up to this point, the reponse from central government has been unacceptably weak.

There were immediately calls from both Portsmouth MPs to transfer further repair work or ship-basing to Portsmouth to absorb some of the jobs, and these were curtly dismissed by Philip Hammond.  The leaders of the local political parties wrote an open letter to David Cameron, which went unanswered for weeks (even after he had popped up down the road in Southampton to promote the “Help to Buy” scheme). Portsmouth Shipbuilding and our local politicians have met BAe to discuss taking over the shipbuilding operation.

Throughout BAe’s wriggling over shipbuilding in Portsmouth, it should be borne in mind that they have never made any real effort to diversify into the civilian market, and their performance as exporters of warships is the worst of any “national champion” shipbuilder in the west.  They have been happy to take whatever the MoD has doled out to them, and now the budget is tighter they have no interest in trying anything different.  It’s quite possible that a healthily-diversified shipbuilding operation is perfectly viable.

The MoD has to take a lot of blame for BAe’s attitude too – we have nothing like a proper defence industrial policy, to ensure that all our strategically-important industries are in a healthy condition.  In the long term, this means we are in danger of having to procure warships overseas – we are already going to South Korea for auxiliaries for the Navy.  Our European competitors, the French, Spanish, and Italians, all have healthy warship-building industries, and are all competent exporters.  There is nothing in the argument you hear sometimes that “shipbuilding is a cost-driven industry and we should give it up to the Far East”.  But there is a lot in the argument that the decision to concentrate shipbuilding on the Clyde is a bribe to the Scots in the lead-up to the referendum, that to do this is strategically stupid, and that to shrink the Navy to the point where we can no longer support three BAe yards is the result of an incoherent policy.

And that brings us back to the appointment of Mr Fallon as “Minister for Portsmouth”.  His appointment is to help us deal with the “loss of shipbuilding”, and implies that the policy is settled. I applaud the work our local politicians are doing to safeguard jobs and create new ones, but the issue of our bonkers defence policy is one that is massively troubling for the Conservative Party because it is so un-Conservative.  Labour can complain all they like, but in fact this government is carrying on their careless attitude to defence.  Remember the cuts to the T45 programme, the procurement disasters, the delays to the aircraft carriers, the decision to buy the wrong plane for the carriers?  All the work of a succession of here-today-gone-tomorrow Labour Defence Secretaries.  Ed Miliband just demoted Jim Murphy, who was rather good as Shadow Defence Secretary, and replaced him with the ineffective Vernon Coaker; Labour’s attitude to defence is still going backwards.

With the coalition government, we still have the ring-fence on overseas aid spending, indeed we still have the DFID itself (both should be abolished, and the job divided between the Foreign Office and the MoD).  I’ve complained before about our support to the Indians and their space programme, but when you add in the muddle in our policy in Syria and the uncertainty of our response to a resurgent Russia, there is clearly a crisis in strategic policy-making at a high level in government.  Michael Fallon says his job is to “champion the interests of Portsmouth”.  Well, in this case they clearly coincide with the real interests of the country as a whole – Whitehall and Westminster have to take their heads out of the sand and address their spending and policy priorities.

“Tarzan” went to Liverpool and immediately started challenging some of the policy directions of the government.  He upset ministers in a number of departments, and drove change through force of personality.  In many ways the structures and bodies he helped set up in Liverpool were revolutionary. Mr Fallon needs to be prepared to upset others in government and be as radical as Heseltine once was.  He certainly arrives with an excellent record.

The decision to close shipbuilding came at a time when, despite the economic difficulties, Portsmouth has felt like it is regaining its old confidence.  Culturally and socially, it is thriving.  It often feels it is thriving in spite of the Lib Dem-run council, who are never more than a day or two away from some scandal or another.  If the other existing parties let us down, who knows what will happen in 2015?  The “Portsmouth First” idea hasn’t gone away.

What we don’t want in our Dockyard are posh flats ranged around the basins, a huge polluting biomass power station, or more shops to suck the life out of what’s left of the city centre.  An “Albert Dock” solution is no good.  We want to build ships, and if we are going to be safe as a country, the country needs us to be doing that.  Apart from that, welcome to Pompey, Mr Fallon, and “good luck”!  And, if you get the chance, renown awaits the first senior Conservative politician to start arguing against the sort of crazy thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.  We only need a Minister for Portsmouth because the Secretary of State for Defence has failed so badly.

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