As is the way of it in Adjournment Debates, especially on a Thursday at the end of the week’s business, it was almost one on one, mano a mano, on the green leather benches of the House of Commons, as Shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones fired a double shotted broadside at the Ministry of Defence’s handling of the controversial HMS Victory 1744 Project. Unfortunately, the Great Ship of State which is the Ministry of Defence- they of the £6.2 billion aircraft carriers without any aircraft- was attempting to hide its bulk behind the graceful yacht which is the Department of Culture Media and Sport, Thus, while shot after shot crashed home they only caused collateral damage to the hapless human shield at the helm of the DCMS for the afternoon, Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey.
As Kevan Jones pounded away flying the flag of Parliamentary Privilege, Mr Vaizey seemed to sink further and further into the front bench. Given the nautical theme of the debate, perhaps he hoped he could become a submarine and escape the bombardment by running silent and deep. After all, the Westminster Parliament sits by the River Thames and on an outgoing tide he could have been away down stream and safe bound for foreign shores by G and T time. If that was his hope he was to be cruelly disappointed. A salvo of depth charges from Mr Jones blew him back to the surface and left him wallowing in the wreckage of the Government’s carefully crafted lines with their skilled evasions, misdirections and carefully crafted gaps.
Mr Vaizey attempted to lay a softly spoken smoke screen. Can’t say too much: Judicial Review pending; site is under threat, and it is all going to be accessioned [the Crown Property that is] National Museum of the Royal Navy will get the HMS Victory collection, [really? all of it?] Charities can seek funds Government’s can’t [Not if they are involved in taking cultural material from projects which break International cultural conventions they can’t].
There was a brief respite as Mr Jones aimed trained his turrets on Mr Vaizey’s escort, a Junior Defence Minister who appeared to be trying to sneak out of the chamber. “Why is it” Mr Jones asked, “that it is the DCMS replying to this debate rather than the MOD?”
Why indeed? The DCMS is the junior department handling the Victory 1744 issue. As a Royal Navy warship she was an MOD responsibility and as such it was an MOD “Deed of Gift” which transferred HMS Victory to the Maritime Heritage Foundation. To confirm this status it was Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon who in October 2014, announced that Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Maritime Heritage Foundation would be allowed to begin to salvage “at risk” surface items from the wreck site, because under that same Deed of Gift the Secretary of State for Defence has the final say on anything to do with work on the Victory. In this one the DCMS role is to make the tea, and consult with English Heritage, which is marginally less important than the tea as far as the MOD is concerned.
The MOD’s Captain Hardy snuck back in as the DCMS’s Nelson sank wounded to the quarter deck in front of Madam Deputy Speaker. It had been a brutal exhibition of the hierarchy of Government and the Conservative Party in action with the MOD Minister in the role of the Political Commissar at Stalingrad standing just behind the line ready to shoot anyone who retreated. You could imagine the dialogue at Vaizey’s briefing.
“So Ed old chap, the long and the short of it is, that Labour wallah Jones is going to give us a pasting over this Victory thing we at MOD sorted out for Bobbie Balchin and his American chums. So we need someone to go out there, onto the floor of the House and you know, like “Zulu Dawn”, make a pointless heroic sacrifice to cover up your senior officer’s incompetence. If you do Dave will get to hear about it and come the next reshuffle, you might even end up in a Department which matters. And if you don’t? Well, we’ll leave you in the office with a bottle of whisky and a revolver to finish off your political career- you know what to do.”
In fact, by the end of the debate the promising battle of half an hour earlier had become a running skirmish at greater and greater range and it was clear that Mr Vaizey for the Government had effectively given up on any pretence at answering Mr Jone’s actual points and was running for a safe harbour, colours tattered, but still just about flying.
But of course, both MP’s knew that this ritual of an end of the day debate on the floor of the House was just the opening exchanges in a wider and potentially much more deadly battle. Even as he spoke Mr Vaizey, and the Ministry of Defence could see the real danger lies in the salvo of guided torpedoes heading full speed in their direction.
Fire Tube One!: Allegations that the Maritime Heritage Foundation is nothing more than a front for Odyssey with no experience no money and a shared consultancy and PR operation: Charity Commission to be asked to investigate.
Fire Tube Two! Allegations HMS Victory gifted without a Departmental Minute even though her contents were worth much more than the limit of £300k: National Audit Office asked to investigate. Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence also asked to investigate.
Fire Tube Three! Allegations Odyssey pumps its share price with third party pumpers promoting treasure stories to the press: US Securities and Exchange Commission to be asked to investigate.
Fire Tube Four! Allegation that former Secretary of State at the DCMS and current Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, held a meeting with Lord Lingfield where Victory was discussed in breach of the Ministerial code: The Cabinet Secretary asked to investigate.
All torpedoes running hot straight and normal.
If any one of these torpedoes hits home it has the potential to hole the HMS Victory project fatally below the waterline.
Once upon a time, a naval contemporary of Admiral Sir John Balchen who was lost with HMS Victory, Admiral Sir John Byng was accused of cowardice and shot on the deck of his own flagship. This caused Voltaire to comment that “The British shoot an Admiral every so often to encourage the others.”
Mr Fallon and Mr Hunt may be wondering tonight if a similar fate might lie in store for them if the HMS Victory story gains traction with the media and the Prime Minister decides that enough is enough and the Conservative Party must distance itself from this latest allegation of incompetence combining with cronyism to desecrate a maritime military grave less than a hundred days from a General Election.
Oh, and even if the Defence Secretary Mr Fallon and Culture Secretary Mr Javid and their flotilla of junior ministers and civil servants who are caught up in this maritime omnishambles manage to accomplish a “battle turn-around” and avoid the torpedoes without colliding with and sinking each other, there is always the very large sea mine which could explode at any moment under the keel of the Department of Transport and Odyssey.
That is the small matter of the roughly $4.9 million dollars Odyssey Marine Exploration allegedly owes the tax payer because it subtracted the cost of search and recovery from the Government’s percentage from the sale of the SS Gairsoppa silver and which the Department of Transport confirms it had no right to under the salvage contract it had signed. The Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport and the National Audit Office have been asked to investigate that allegation too.
That is seven separate investigations into various aspects of the HMS Victory 1744 project including five in Parliament and Whitehall. And all that before the Marine Management Organisation Licence for the project has even gone out to consultation [and like Mr Vaizey we cannot even mention the impending Judicial Review].
As the sun set on a bitterly cold and sleety London afternoon outside the so called Westminster Bubble, the last word should be in remembrance of what this Parliamentary ritual called an Adjournment Debate was really all about. An adjournment debate is a chance for MP’s to air subjects which would concern their constituents but would not normally get discussed on the floor of the House and there is no denying this subject was worth the airing.
“Our nation rightly honours citizens who die in the active service of our country.” said Mr Jones “I am a commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and I am truly privileged to serve on it. Just like the true descendants of Sir John Balchen, the British public will be outraged and scandalised by the sleazy way the Government have treated the last resting place of HMS Victory and her crew.”