Plenty of Tories are, it seems, cock-a-hoop about the news, still to be confirmed, that General Sir Richard Dannatt is to be elevated to the House of Lords where he will become a Tory defence adviser and, perhaps, a minister in the next Conservative government. And, in fairness, one can see why the Conservatives would be so pleased. There’s no-one on the Labour benches who brings as much firepower to the political battlefield as General Dannatt.
Yet if the government’s criticisms of General Dannatt were, at times, unseemly then so too was his very public dissension from (aspects of) government policy at a time when he was, after all, in charge of implementing that policy. General Dannatt thought little of stepping outside the chain-of-command. If nothing else this set a precedent that the Conservatives may find troubling once they are responsible for foreign and defence policy. After all, the Tories have declined to "ring-fence" the defence budget, making one wonder just how they will provide all the "necessary resources" the army says it needs. Our old friend Efficiency Savings can only be expected to do so much and even then we tend to over-estimate his capabilities.
Equally, let’s be blunt enough to admit that the brouhaha over equipment shortages has been useful for the army since it has deflected attention away from the army’s actual performance in the field. That doesn’t mean that the critics don’t have a point when it comes to equipment provision, merely that almost all armies in almost all conflicts grouse about equipment failures. But you go to war, as a chap once said, with the army you have, not the army of your dreams.
As I say, equipment and manpower are part of the equation, but not the only elements. Yes, it’s good that General Dannatt reinvigorated the idea of the Military Covenant, but there are plenty of impartial judges who conclude that even allowing for these limitations, the army’s performance has been, shall we say, under-whelming. That’s a much bigger, more important matter than whether the army needs an additional 10% increase in the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan.
It’s right that the Secretary of State for Defence and, ultimately, the Prime Minister carry responsibility for the MoD’s shortcomings. But shouldn’t that principle also apply to the army’s Top Brass for their own part in the messy, less than glorious campaigns waged this century?
Ultimately, the "stab in the back" theory proffered by General Dannatt can only take you so far and is, in any case, unbecoming of a Chief of the General Staff who seems so reluctant to take any responsibility himself.
For a man who has displayed lamentable judgement in his post as CGS, however, this is but a continuation of that same poor judgement. By tradition, ex-service chiefs, on ascending to the Lords, become cross-benchers, staying above party politics. If indeed, while in the post of CGS, Dannatt has been advising the Tories, it is more than bad judgement. It is a betrayal of his office.
Furthermore, by entering the cockpit of narrow, party politics, Dannatt has diminished himself, his former post, and whatever advice he has given and will give. It will be forever tainted.