Sketch: Quentin Davies’ blustering masterclass

Defence minister Quentin Davies showed how nothing quite beats bluster as he bristled his way through an absurd Commons committee grilling.

By Alex Stevenson

It was perfect timing for the Grantham and Stanford MP. Not only had he dismissed the controversy over his bell tower expenses claim as “silly” and a “joke” on the morning’s Today programme but the National Audit Office had also, only hours before, published a report condemning the Ministry of Defence on exactly his portfolio. What a pleasant opportunity to discuss his conduct with the parliamentary hounds on the defence committee.

By the time I slipped into the room the session was in full flow. I sat with Davies directly between myself and James Arbuthnot, the crusty old chairman whose withering over-the-glasses stares make Ann Robinson look like Mrs Claus. On one occasion he caught sight of me grinning behind the minister’s ear. I can confidently predict the sight will haunt my dreams. It will take years to recover.

Davies appeared to be struggling, too, given the limpness of his ministerial obfuscations. Fortunately his job, which involves a lot of forward-planning, is perfectly suited to these question-marks. “That’s going to go on until the end of time,” he sighed. “It may not be ideal, but that’s just life.”

The committee appeared baffled. Davies was happy to explain that, over lengthy forecast periods, the MoD was constantly shuffling projects to and fro. “We’re always playing around with them,” he said, conjuring an image of the minister sitting on the floor with little models of his aircraft carriers, Eurofighter Typhoons and Mastiff armoured vehicles scattered all around. “We’re always saying do we need this? Do we need that? It is always a moving amount of money the whole time.”

MPs were unimpressed. It made them froth at the mouth all the more when they addressed the decision to delay completing the Queen Elizabeth II carriers, at a cost of a mere £674 million. After a lengthy waffle, Davies happily conceded: “It was a saving this year, yes.” Silence followed. “You have rendered the committee rather speechless,” Arbuthnot said. You could almost hear the gnashing, and/or grinding, of teeth.

This was only the warm-up, however. A titanic clash between Davies and Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin was in the offing. The pair got into a tiff over spending predictions for the coming decade. Did the Pre-Budget Report not outline a cut in MoD spending next year, foretelling further financial calamities?

That, at least, was the question Jenkin asked. Davies appeared utterly perplexed after being shown a section of the NAO report. “You’ve asked me to read a graph while listening to your question. It’s a bit difficult to do both at the same time,” he grumbled testily. Eventually Davies’ response was ready. Maintaining funding at current levels “would have been a dramatic and desperate situation to be in,” he said. “At the end of that time I’m not sure we’d have much left in the state of national defence at all!”

Jenkin wanted to confirm the PBR showed a falling defence core budget for next year. Davies, perhaps mishearing him, confused the next financial year with next year, literally. “What is it going to be next year?” Jenkin asked. “I don’t know,” Davies protested. “”We’ll have to discuss that next year.” It was a minor miracle Jenkin did not begin tearing large chunks out of his hair.

Arbuthnot passed his unhappy committee member a note, getting him to ask a follow-up question. Davies appeared to have completely forgotten the pair had ever spoken. “We have not engaged in discussions about the core budget,” the minister stated, minutes after engaging in discussions about the core budget. He may as well have peered at Jenkin curiously and asked: “Have we met?”

But the exchange dragged on, tortuously, catastrophically, descending into an utter farce. Jenkin, who had been muttering “ludicrous!” under his breath, said he was “astonished by the answers you’re giving to me”. But Davies pooh-poohed the figures he was being given, telling Jenkin, “you choose to extrapolate…”

“I do!” Jenkin snorted. “In the absence of clear answers, I choose to extrapolate!” He stalked out soon afterwards, perhaps in a bid to avoid a public display of manly emotion. It was about as comprehensive a defeat as they come.

All this did not even relate to the most serious point raised by the session, which was the MoD’s refusal to explain where it had achieved £15 billion of savings.

This, the summit of Davies’ reluctance, brought a strong rebuke from the fuming Arbuthnot, who slowly and deliberately wondered how on earth he was supposed to conduct “proper parliamentary scrutiny”. “I am not minded to accept,” he began menacingly, with the air of an 18th-century duellist about to pull out the pistols.

Davies didn’t need to fight, for he had by now perfected what had turned out to be the ultimate shield: his magnificent mode of blustering protest. “I simply can’t come out with a whole list of projects!” he yelped. “Traditionally, we’ve never done that. We must keep our powder dry. We want to benefit from the market occasionally, that sort of thing.”

He sat back, with a look of smug satisfaction on his face. The committee were, after all, being completely unreasonable. “I’d need a comprehensive printout!” was his most telling excuse. Come on, chaps. When do you think this is? The 21st century?