Defence secretary Ben Wallace has sent out a strong signal that Dominic Cummings – prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief special adviser – is poised to launch a wide-ranging programme of procurement reform, with the Ministry of Defence a key target.
Wallace, a former captain in the Scots Guards, said it was time for armed forces top brass to “make sure we cut our cloth to match our ambition” and said moving to a new funding footing for the MoD was likely to depend on its ability to sort its own house out.
The defence secretary used an interview with the BBC journalist Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast to make clear that any additional funding for the military – above the £2.2bn uplift secured in this autumn’s spending round – would require progress against clear goals, and that there would be no avoiding reform.
“Dom is full of amazing ideas where he has spotted loads of improvement in things like infrastructure procurement, in technology procurement,” Wallace said.
“And he has spotted that as our technology horizon changes, how we procure that has to happen differently and I’m incredibly supportive of what he’s been talking about and I think he’s keen to explore some of the challenges.”
Asked whether negative comments attributed to Cummings on central government’s procurement expertise and a revolving-doors culture between the private and public sectors might ruin any potential future relationship between the chief spad and the MoD, Wallace was blunt.
“They’re not going to get a choice,” he said. “Dominic Cummings is right in one sense, and it’s not any different across the whole public sector.
“Across the whole public sector for the last 20-30 years it seems that the private sector were better at the contracts than the public sector.”
Wallace said there were “proper questions” about how government acquired the expertise it needed to make sure long-term service deals represented proper value for money.
“Some of the PFI contracts that I have to live with at the MoD signed under Gordon Brown are close to criminal,” he said.
“They’re outrageous. All driven by a political desire to hide debt. The amount I take every single day in costs in the department for almost unbreakable PFI contracts, whether its accommodation, whether it’s aircraft. That is scandalous.”
Wallace conceded that one area where Cummings could be more balanced was in terms of understanding where ultimate responsibility lay for procurement failings.
“What I would say to Dominic is that as much as the industry and the commissioners have challenges, some of the politicians have to answer for that as well,” he said.
“Optimism bias is a modern phrase. But it's absolutely true across government and procurement.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Wallace accepted that the MoD had a funding shortfall but dismissed some concerns expressed on behalf of the armed services as “alarmist”.
“It’s roundly accepted that the Strategic Defence Review of 2015 was not correctly funded,” he said.
The secretary of state said the £2.2bn uplift secured at the last spending round had been less than the MoD sought, but more than had been planned.
“Those rather alarmist comments would be more true if we hadn’t got it,” he said.
Last year the National Audit Office said the MoD was facing a potential funding “black hole” of up to £21bn of its equipment needs over the next decade.
Wallace said that as part of his efforts to rein in MoD spending he had sent the three chiefs of staff single priority areas to focus on: technical issues with a particular class of destroyer for the Royal Navy; recruitment for the Army; and pilot-training issues with the Royal Air Force.
“We have to be trusted if we are going to persuade the Treasury to fund us for long-term projects,” he said.
“If I go back to the Treasury and ask for more ships or more submarines, they might laugh me out of the building if they say ‘you’ve got these Type 45s, it’s been well-publicised we’ve got engine problems with three or four of them, so before you want something new, let’s get it fixed.
“I’ve said to the chief of the general staff, your priority is to recruit: don’t ask me for new armoured vehicles if you’ve got no-one to go in them, otherwise what’s the point?
“And I said to the chief of the air staff there is a very well publicised failure in the processing and training of our fighter pilots. We’ve got a glut of about 250 who are halfway through and instead of taking two or three years to train it’s been taking up to seven.
“By that stage, half of them say I’m off to fly for Ryanair thank you very much, or I’ve got children and I’m not doing this any longer.”
The full interview can be found here.