Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the leadership speculation starts stirring again. It’s not Gordon Brown who’s the subject of it this time, though – but rather the defence chief, Air Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, who, according to today’s Times, is due for the chop after the next election. Either his deputy, Nick Houghton, or the Army chief, David Richards, are likely to fill the breach.
The story brings to the surface long-simmering tensions at the top of the military establishment about Sir Jock’s leadership. The Times says that Gordon Brown did not force out the defence chief because he did not want more rowing with the military after General Richard Dannat’s retirement.
But it is also true that, in Sir Jock, the Prime Minister had an officer who was keen to rebuild links with the political class – a priority for the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, too, who was said to be appalled at General Dannatt’s behaviour. In many ways, it may be an over-eagerness to please the government – as well as an unwillingess to make clear what the military really needed – which has made Sir Jock unpopular among some of his colleagues.
Both of the names in the frame to succeed Sir Jock are outstanding soldiers who, in person, are smart, persuasive and cut from the best Army leadership cloth. They are both described as having "command experience" – but, in truth, General Houghton’s six-month stint as an adviser to a US general in Iraq does not compare with General Richard’s command of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. General Houghton, though, is seen by some as more acceptable to other Whitehall departments after his time as the Chief of Joint Operations, based in the Permanent Joint Headquarters. He may also be seen as the more fairly tri-service player.
The question a Tory defence secretary has to ask himself, though, is: of the two Army generals, who is more likely to complement and challenge my own thinking; drive the necessary change across the Services; boost morale among the forces; and improve our chances of winning in the parts of Afghanistan we’re in charge of? Looking at the issue that way, then General Richards would appear to be the best choice.