The drowsy early morning audience suddenly found itself called to order by a friendly bark of command: “Nobody said it’s going to be easy!”
The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, had arrived and was addressing us like a platoon which had been out on the town last night and needed to be woken up.
“We’ll be all right!” he went on, having obtained our attention. We had an hour or two earlier discovered that the high command had decided in its wisdom to conduct a U-turn in full view of the enemy.
A bit dicey, some of us thought, this manoeuvre. We were going to be cut to pieces. But here was Wallace declaring it would all be all right.
Then a second Wallace arrived. Apparently we had not yet begun to recover from the dull and deep potations of the night before, and were seeing double.
But this, it turned out, was Mark Wallace, Chief Executive of ConHome, who began questioning his namesake about the Russian threat.
Wallace, stationed as a junior officer in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, saw the humiliated Russian troops from Magdeburg who came to sell off their kit.
And he had recent experience of meeting Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defence, who on being warned by Wallace that the Russians would suffer, replied: “We can suffer like no one else.”
Wallace summed up the Russian mentality: “Suffering is what qualifies you to be the best Russian, not outcomes.”
He touched for a moment on the ConHome Cabinet League Table published yesterday, topped by himself on 85.8 per cent, which in a joking tone he said reached “Russian levels of believability”.
In Russia, he remarked, “if that pollster rings you from downtown Moscow and asks you if you support the war you’re probably going to say yes”.
When asked if regime change is the only option in Russia, he replied: “No, we’re not in the business of regime change.”
Nor was it possible to offer Putin a way out, “an off-ramp”, for he could be depended upon to reject it: “He builds his own cage around himself.”
Putin is “an ethnic nationalist” who is not much worried by NATO: “My friend Michael Gove was asked should Ukraine join NATO and he said No. Well, NATO policy is not for him to decide…if Ukraine applies to join NATO, if they’re victorious, we should look at it on its merits…”
Wallace was able to stand up to Foreign Office warnings that a visit by him to Kiev might provoke Putin: “I was very lucky – I was supported by Boris Johnson right from the start.”
Does Wallace regret not standing for the Tory leadership? No, he replied: “The reality is that it wasn’t for me.” One has to really want to be PM, and he didn’t. His ambition is to start “reversing the managed decline of defence that we’ve seen for 40 years”.
We are not just training the Ukrainians: we are learning from their experience on the battlefield. One had the impression that Wallace too is always learning.
“I don’t think Russia does U-turns,” he remarked – the implication being, perhaps, that democracies sometimes find they must.