This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
Andrew Robathan is a stickler for discipline and rules. He is every bit the military man and has endured his fair share of coming under fire, from the frontline in the House of Commons to the Gulf War.
The minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans boasts an impressive CV of military experience. He studied at Sandhurst and Camberley before becoming an officer in the Coldstream Guards and the Special Air Service.
He also had a one-year stint working for BP before returning to the army as chief of staff of the Prisoner of War Guard Force for Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait in the First Gulf War.
Robathan was appointed a defence minister after the birth of the coalition government, and became the first MP with a military background to be placed in the post in the past 13 years.
As the minister responsible for veterans’ welfare, Robathan’s priorities have included tackling mental illness within the armed forces, literacy training and providing support for service families.
In a recent written answer, he announced that the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health will be collaborating to improve mental healthcare provisions for serving and ex-service personnel and their families to help them understand mental illness.
This has included Enhanced Medical Health Assessments, which allow forces personnel with mental illnesses to access military mental-health facilities, a 24-hour helpline, a Veterans Information Service, and an online mental-health portal for the armed forces, called the Big White Wall.
Robathan also played a key role in overseeing the Armed Forces Bill last year, which called for the Military Covenant (the nation’s promise to look after troops in return for their services to the country) to be made law, and he also signed an agreement with the US to continue to support the armed forces, veterans and their families.
While in opposition, he also called on the government to bring changes to the UK’s voting laws to make it easier for serving troops to vote in general elections.
He once said: “I firmly believe the government didn’t want people in the armed forces voting because of the large numbers who wouldn’t vote Labour. The government dragged its heels deliberately.”
Before all this, the minister received his political initiation as a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham in 1990, before becoming an MP for Blaby in 1992 (later renamed South Leicestershire following boundary changes).
He became parliamentary private secretary to the then minister for sport Iain Sproat under John Major’s government, before returning to the backbenches after the Conservatives’ 1997 defeat.
During his time in opposition, he sat on the international development select committee from 1997–2002 before returning as a trade and industry spokesman in 2002.
He served as shadow defence minister and later shadow defence secretary before being appointed opposition deputy chief whip after supporting David Cameron’s leadership bid in 2005.
Robathan, however, isn’t clear of controversy. Who can forget that infamous incident where he allegedly attempted to throw Stella Creasy out of a lift? It was said that he mistook the Labour MP for Walthamstow for a researcher, and demanded she present her ID.
There was a similar gaffe, when he challenged ITV political correspondent Alex Forrest for using the members’ lift during a division.
He also soon found himself nicknamed “the Blue Dinosaur” after his voting record came under scrutiny. It included voting against increased maternity leave, equal rights for homosexuals and the introduction of a minimum wage.
But amid the criticism, the character assassinations – even a petition calling for his resignation – the minister remained composed through all the media flak. In response to the Creasy affair, Robathan’s line of defence was that it was difficult to keep track of new MPs after the 2010 election, adding: “Am I meant to stop challenging people who break the rules?”
Even Forrest came to Robathan’s defence: “It’s good that people like Andrew uphold the rules of the House of Commons.”
The view inside Westminster
Speaking to Robathan’s colleagues, it is clear he is something of an enigma.
One describes his work in the MoD as “studious and informed”. Others suggest his personality is “old-fashioned”.
One thing that most fellow MPs agreed on was that he sometimes struggles to present himself “in the best possible light”.
“He’s not the first name on the weekend media rota,” quipped another MP.