The UK House of Commons Defence Committee: Continuity or Reset?

No time to relax: the House of Commons Defence Committee has a busy year ahead. Image: robertharding / Alamy

With limited time before the next UK general election and a host of matters to address, can the new chair of the Defence Committee make an impact?

The day before Parliament was prorogued in October, the deputy speaker interrupted a debate to inform the House that the Conservative MP for Witney, Robert Courts, had been elected chair of the Defence Committee in the first round of voting. His predecessor, Tobias Ellwood, had resigned from the post six weeks before to pre-empt a vote of no confidence in his chairmanship.

Courts is not a high-profile figure outside Westminster. He was elected in 2016 after David Cameron stepped down as prime minister and vacated his seat, and he has created few waves: he was a junior transport minister for just over two years under Boris Johnson, responsible for aviation and maritime issues, but was held partly responsible for the travel chaos at UK airports in summer 2022 and left the government when Liz Truss became prime minister.

Although he was instrumental in persuading the government to create its Combat Air Strategy in 2018, providing a vision for the aerospace industry beyond the service life of Typhoon, on paper he was the outside candidate for chair of the committee. He had only joined the committee in October 2022, yet he defeated two more experienced incumbents: Sarah Atherton, a former military analyst in the Intelligence Corps and briefly a defence minister, and Mark Francois, a one-time infantry reservist who served as armed forces minister between 2013–15. But Courts won comfortably, with 249 votes to Atherton’s 142 and Francois’s 39.

Courts knows that there is probably less than a year until the next general election. He has inherited a committee which is in the early stages of four distinct inquiries: armed forces readiness, future aviation capabilities, defence in the grey zone, and a follow-up of its 2021 report on women in the armed forces. His options for the committee until the end of the parliament are, therefore, limited. He promised to be a ‘strong and unifying chair, providing collegiate stability’ – essentially a reference to the fact that Ellwood’s relationship with the rest of the committee had soured and then collapsed – and he has stressed the committee’s duty of ‘robust scrutiny’.

Courts knows that there is probably less than a year until the next general election

Managing the committee will be no small task. Five of his colleagues – Francois, Atherton, Kevan Jones, John Spellar and Derek Twigg – are former defence ministers who will not feel they require very much leadership, while Emma Lewell-Buck was on the Labour front bench for more than three years.

Moreover, the committee takes its duties very seriously, conscious of the literal life-and-death matters which it examines. At its best it is a strikingly collegiate body, unwittingly reinforced by the reflexive secrecy and obstructiveness of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). MPs will almost always unite across party lines against a common opponent.

There is a difficult balance to be struck here at the moment, as relations between the committee and the department are at a low ebb. Recent government responses to committee reports have been perfunctory, as if the MoD cannot quite find the energy or motivation at this stage in the parliament to engage in any depth with its principal scrutiny body. This leaves Courts needing to conduct a delicate strategy of triangulation, persuading the MoD that he and his fellow parliamentarians are serious-minded but constructive critics; persuading the members that the MoD is not a blank-faced rampart but can be an open forum for discussion; and reassuring MPs more widely that he is a willing and influential figure in all current areas of policy.

The issue most likely to present itself is the UK’s ongoing military assistance to Ukraine, and its knock-on effect on the MoD’s own procurement and logistics

Balancing the programme of inquiries with ad hoc scrutiny of the MoD will be a challenge. The Platonic ideal of a select committee has a carefully planned forward programme of inquiries and enough flexibility and time to respond to issues which appear unexpectedly. In summer 2021, for example, the committee held a one-off evidence session on the troubled Ajax armoured fighting vehicle. (One cannot even rule out a repeat of that. Ajax was supposed to have entered service six years ago, and the MoD has already spent £4 billion on the procurement. A single squadron is scheduled for initial operating capability in late 2025, and the vehicle will not properly be in service until 2029.)

The issue most likely to present itself is the UK’s ongoing military assistance to Ukraine, and its knock-on effect on the MoD’s own procurement and logistics. In April, the Public Accounts Committee drew attention to the fact that supplying Ukraine had all but exhausted the UK’s own stockpiles of munitions like the NLAW anti-tank weapon, and the MoD is in the process of moving away from buying ammunition in large, discrete tranches. Instead, the government will move to a more consistent rolling programme of procurement and replenishment.

There is also a danger that the understandable focus on its obligations to Ukraine will rob the UK of the physical, industrial resources and simple attention span needed to respond to the unexpected. Iran is already testing its potential limits in and around the Persian Gulf, harassing vessels travelling through the Straits of Hormuz. Memories of the seizure of 15 Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel from HMS Cornwall by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2007 are fresh and vivid in Whitehall and at Strategic Command at Northwood: the UK was temporarily put off-balance by the incident. But it is too easy to imagine that kind of emergency flaring up out of nowhere. A repeat would rocket up the Defence Committee’s agenda.

In an ideal world, the committee would also begin – however tentatively – to look into lessons learned from the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. It is already clear that there have been significant changes in the conduct of irregular warfare, and these must be analysed and understood by the MoD and by the committee. This may, however, remain an aspiration given the paucity of time and the fact that the conflict shows no signs of abating soon.

The new chair of the Defence Committee has an exceptionally complicated matrix of events and plans to manage. Working collaboratively with a sensitive committee to monitor the UK’s long-term defence and security policy while having the energy and attention to respond to global events is a profound challenge.

Yet Courts knows how good an account he must give of himself, especially if he harbours ambitions to retain the chairmanship of the committee into the next parliament. He must appear in control but not domineering, strategic yet able to react to events as they happen. He will need the most methodical part of his lawyer’s brain, and the popularity with his fellow MPs he obviously enjoys, to make a happy ending even faintly possible.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Eliot Wilson

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