Reserving Judgement: Tom Tugendhat interview
The House Magazine interview:
Syria remains entrenched in civil war; the Islamic State is making fresh inroads in Iraq; conflict threatens to spill over in Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen; and thousands upon thousands of migrants continue to flee to Europe from the failed state in Libya. The Middle East looks set to dominate UK foreign policy like never before over this parliament, and few people in public life know more about the region than Tom Tugendhat: former Army officer, Foreign Office adviser, fluent Arabic speaker, and now the new Member for the tranquil Kent towns of Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling.
A Master’s in Islamic Studies from Cambridge was followed by a stint as a Beirut-based journalist covering the rising threat of radicalism. On returning to the UK, Tugendhat joined the Territorial Army and was part of the invasion force in the 2003 Iraq War, serving with the Intelligence Corps, before going on to help distribute the new Iraqi Dinar as part of the country’s huge economic reconstruction effort. He then joined the Foreign Office, helped establish Afghanistan’s new National Security Council and served as an adviser to the governor of the restive Helmand Province. After a further tour of Afghanistan with the Marines, for which he was awarded an MBE, he became an adviser to General David Richards (now Lord Richards), first in his capacity as head of the Army, and then as Chief of the Defence Staff.
It’s not a bad CV for someone who left service just a few days after his 40th birthday. If Brad Pitt’s film company famously bought the movie rights to Conservative MP Rory Stewart’s life story, then Tugendhat’s, too, must be worth a few bob. But when the idea of him being ‘the one to watch’ from his party’s new intake is mooted, he laughs it off: “People can tell me whether I’m one to watch in 20 years’ time…”
For now, he says, it’s simply an “extraordinary honour to be here”. “It doesn’t quite hit home until you walk through the doors,” he says as we sit down in Portcullis House. “I wasn’t particularly nervous through the campaign; I wasn’t particularly nervous at the count, because I was there with the team who I started the fight with a year and a half ago. It was only on the train on the way up that I suddenly realised the enormity of it, as you realise that you are representing a huge team that wants you to succeed and will work with you – but you’ve got to work damn hard to make sure you pull your weight.”
"Tugendhat says he’s always followed politics – “having an interest in politics is not at all unusual in the military, because you are fundamentally at the sharp end of politics,” he adds – but only made the decision to get involved himself after leaving the military in the summer of 2013. And while he insists he has “never been terribly party political”, his values have “always been Conservative”. “I’m very, very much a One Nation Conservative, I very strongly believe in community. It won’t surprise you to hear that somebody who’s worked for the state as long as I have thinks the state does have a role in society, but it’s not the same thing as society. There’s many things that we can do better together."
He’s not entirely new to politics, however, having long followed the career of his close friend and fellow ex-serviceman Dan Jarvis. Tugendhat served with the Labour MP in Afghanistan, and describes him as a “great guy, a man of very high integrity and a very impressive man”.
Jarvis’s own political career has developed at breakneck speed since his by-election win just four years ago, and he surprised supporters earlier this month when he announced he wouldn’t stand for the leadership of his party. Is Tugendhat disappointed, or perhaps secretly glad, that his friend will not be leading the Opposition any time soon? “It would be great to have a man of such integrity playing an even more prominent part in public life,” he says. “It’s great for the country and it’s great for all parties when high-calibre individuals lead their parties. But I don’t know who the Labour party are going to choose, it’s not my business – it’s up to them. But I think it’s fantastic that Dan is already recognised as such a leading light in his party. It’s no less than he deserves. He’s a very, very fine man.”
Like Jarvis, Tugendhat is keen to stress that he has not been elected as “a representative of the Armed Forces” but as the representative of the people of his constituency, and says he will be “very, very clear in speaking out on areas that I think matter to my community”. He says education will be a priority (Tugendhat is governor of Kent school Hill View), as will dealing with the impact of an ageing population and dementia care. “That will be a major part of my effort here”, he explains. “Dementia care is sadly going to affect us all in some way, either directly or through relatives, and it’s something that we as a community must do better at.”
Nonetheless, he adds, he is “certainly not going to keep quiet” on matters of defence where he can bring expertise. And with the Islamic State entrenching their position in Iraq, the troubles in Ukraine deepening, a new Strategic Defence and Security Review due and a political battle expected over the 2% spending target, Tugendhat’s experience is likely to be called upon over the coming months.
The former officer was part of then Chief of the General Staff David Richards’ team back in 2010 during the last SDSR, a key plank of which was the plan to cut the Regular Army to 82,000, while increasing the size of the Army Reserve to 30,000. The reforms have run into difficulty and last year led to concerns over a capability gap, after the National Audit Office warned the 30,000 target figure may not be reached until 2025, six years behind schedule. Recruitment is thought to have since picked up after a massive publicity campaign. But Tugendhat defends the MoD over the reforms, saying it is not surprising that it “took some time” for the changes “to feed through”.
“The work of the Army – and particularly people like Generals Wall and Carter – over the last three or four years has been phenomenal; they’ve done phenomenal work in making sure that the Reserve is not some sort of afterthought add-on but is very much part of the integrated structure.
“That’s really a reflection on the changing world and the changing nature of conflicts; 30 years ago the Reserve was pretty much there to fill the gap until the Regulars could turn up and push the Russians back over the German border, or whatever it happened to be. Now it’s simply not that; there are a whole bunch of Reservists who bring different skills and different talents that frankly would be incredibly expensive or difficult – if not impossible – to maintain in a regular armed forces; languages that you may not need all the time, medical skills that you only need in emergencies and things like that.”
Conservative backbenchers will be waiting in anticipation to see the Government’s plans for defence over the coming months, and in particular whether the Treasury commits to extend its current target of spending 2% of GDP on defence beyond 2015-16. British defence chiefs were lobbying furiously for a commitment from the Conservatives before the election, and their efforts picked up again this week as former Chief of the Air Staff Sir Michael Graydon urged David Cameron to “repair the damage” done and set out a commitment sooner rather than later.
Tugendhat says he remains “slightly cautious” about GDP-based targets, and would rather see defence spending fixed as a proportion of government expenditure, but he insists he and other backbenchers want to see defence “properly funded”. Backbench feeling over defence spending is running high, and Tugendhat says the new intake of Conservative MPs will be prepared to fight “very strongly” to influence the Government over this and other points. But he adds that there is also an understanding that the party only achieved a majority by working together with the leadership. “There’s a real feeling among the more than 70 of us who were elected as Conservatives this time round that we appreciate that the reason we’re here is because the team worked,” he says.
“So I think, and I hope, what you’ll see is all of us working very strongly together to deliver Conservative policies. Now, does that mean that we won’t seek to influence the decisions of the Government? No, it doesn’t. It means we will seek to influence the decisions of the Government and we will be having those fights very strongly. But we will be having those fights in order to change the policy of the Government rather than simply in order to rebel. We understand that you succeed as a team and you fail on your own.”