After biting his lip for a year, former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth talks to Paul Dale about his difficult relationship with Gordon Brown.
Bob Ainsworth has joined a long line of senior Labour figures to openly criticise Gordon Brown, describing the “impossible” relationship he faced as Defence Secretary when attempting to work with the Prime Minister.
Coventry North East MP Ainsworth, who spent the 11 months up to the General Election in the cabinet, was rarely able to secure one-to-one meetings with Mr Brown and when the two did get together Ainsworth says his views on defence policy were generally ignored, he has revealed.
“It’s no secret that Gordon and I are not each other’s greatest fans,” he explained. “I found him very difficult to work with. Impossible really.”
The greatest strain in the relationship occurred in October last year when an official inquiry was published into the death of 14 servicemen who were killed when an RAF Nimrod surveillance aircraft burst into flames over Afghanistan.
The report, by Charles Haddon-Cave QC, exposed catastrophic design faults in the Nimrod MR2 which were not put right as a result of cost-cutting and “complacency”.
Ainsworth revealed that Gordon Brown’s office made it clear the entire Nimrod fleet should be grounded, even though repairs to faulty hot-air ducts and fuel pipes on the remaining aircraft had taken place.
Ainsworth took the view that the aircraft were, therefore, safe to fly and he strongly suspected Brown’s office of wanting headlines promoting the Government as taking tough, decisive action to safeguard members of the armed forces in an attempt to deflate the highly damaging content of Haddon-Cave’s report.
In fact, according to Ainsworth, there was no need at all to stop the Nimrods from flying.
In the end, the Defence Secretary faced down Brown and got his own way.
Mr Ainsworth recalled: “He wanted me to ground the fleet, I said if you give me a written order I will do so but not unless.”
The Nimrods flew on until March this year, when they were withdrawn by Ainsworth as part of a cost-cutting package.
Addressing his relationship with Brown directly, Mr Ainsworth said: “I don’t suppose I am the easiest person to work with, but I am a party loyalist. I’m a team player and not a maverick.”
Even as Defence Secretary, Ainsworth found it extremely difficult to speak directly to the Prime Minister. And when the two did meet, the sense of frustration at running up against a brick wall was palpable.
Mr Ainsworth said: “You have to pay a price if you want people to be part of the team. There has to be discussion, you have to be given your day in court, there has to be a conversation.
“You have to be given a chance to promote your bid, but with Gordon so often you don’t.”
Educated at the school of hard knocks and the university of life, Bob Ainsworth is well suited to handle the rough and tumble of political life.
But nothing could have prepared the former Jaguar panel-beater for the tirade of snobbish abuse that greeted his appointment as Secretary of State for Defence in June 2009.
The 57-year-old’s elevation to the cabinet triggered an avalanche of awful headlines, and not just among tabloid newspapers.
Pillar of the establishment The Times led the way, claiming the selection of Ainsworth was Gordon Brown’s last desperate throw of the dice in an attempt to keep his warring party together.
It was claimed the Coventry North East MP was the prime minister’s second or third choice and only got the job because he was a member of a group of MPs on Labour’s right, including Alistair Darling, who had to be kept on board in order to shore up Brown’s perilous position as party leader.
Predictably, the Tory-supporting Daily Mail was critical, describing Ainsworth as an unfit person to be Defence Secretary.
But The Guardian, a left-leaning paper that you might imagine would have been impressed by a working class lad making his way to the top, was no more restrained, sneering that Ainsworth resembled a character from an Ealing Comedy with “a bottle-brush moustache”.
The Times returned to the fray by denouncing the Defence Secretary as “stodgy as porridge and inspiring as a cabbage”.
The clear implication was that Ainsworth, or Bob Jobsworth as he was dubbed, lacked the gravitas and brainpower to lead Britain’s armed forces into war on two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan. How on earth could such a person, who hailed from one of the poorest housing estates in Coventry and left school at 15 with little in the way of formal qualifications, deal with Field Marshals and Admirals?
He might have been the sort of chap who ate peas off his knife for goodness sake.
In fact, the appointment was not as strange as the newspapers pretended.
With two years behind him as Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and 14 years in the Government whips office plus several junior ministerial posts, Ainsworth could hardly be said to have been lacking in experience.
He’s always had supreme belief in himself, having made it clear to Labour whips when he entered parliament in 1992 that he was ambitious and expected nothing less than promotion.
As one of that year’s intake of new MPs from local government – he was deputy leader of Coventry City Council – Ainsworth had at least the benefit of having helped to run a large public body.
Yet, when offered the biggest job of his career, he appears to have succumbed to an unusual attack of self doubt.
“I had spoken to Gordon and expressed an interest in the job. I had to think about whether I really wanted it, but the alternative would have been someone coming in to the department new at a time of war. It was important that we had continuity.
“I considered it to be an 11-month assignment because I assumed the election would be in May and that we would lose,” he admitted.
In his first major interview since resigning as Secretary of State, Ainsworth admits he is struggling to get used to “normality”. He’s gone from a cossetted life, whisked around the world with first class travel accompanied by a retinue of support staff and armed security guards, to the role of a backbench constituency MP.
He reckons to have typically worked 17-hour days when running the country’s armed forces, and now finds the things that most of us would take for granted as bemusing. He has accepted an invitation to promote Coventry’s defence-related industries at Farnborough, but without a ministerial back-up team on hand to sort out travel arrangements, he hasn’t a clue how to get there.
Ainsworth wasn’t the first Defence Secretary to have to make cuts, and he won’t be the last. He approved a £1.5 billion of savings in December last year, scrapping three squadrons of Harrier and Tornado jets – more than a quarter of the frontline force. Two months earlier, a review by former Labour defence adviser Bernard Gray embarrassed the government by exposing lengthy delays in delivering military kit to troops in Afghanistan.
There is something of a paradox to the way most people see Britain’s role in the world, according to Ainsworth.
“We want to be an important country but we don’t want to pay for defence. That’s not just a Labour party issue, it affects the Tories and the Liberal Democrats as well.
“We are still spending more than most European countries on defence as a proportion of GDP. The big dilemma is, and this annoys me more than anything, that people will look at the television and say something must be done but they won’t pay for the means with which to do it.
“The reason we were able to do something in Bosnia, to stop men being taken into the woods and shot, to stop women being raped, was because we could. We had the means to do so.
“The biggest issue is that the overwhelming majority of people in this country don’t get Afghanistan. They don’t believe us when we say our national security is at stake. But it’s not for a lack of trying, we have tried to put the case.
“We in the West walked away from Afghanistan at the end of the cold war and left it a country devastated socially and armed to the teeth. If we do that again there will be consequences.”
He flatly rejects complaints about supposed poorly-equipped soldiers, noting that the budget for urgent operational requirements in Afghanistan – paying for trucks, helicopters and kit – rose from £3 billion to £5 billion a year on his watch.
As for his own future, he has still not decided whether to stand for the Shadow Cabinet elections later this year.
Were he to do so and be successful, he might yet play a moderating role at the heart of policy-making under whoever emerges as the new Labour leader.