The Tories are handing defence to Jim Murphy, says John McTernan

The first rule of spin club is that there’s no such thing as spin club. The
second rule of spin club is that there’s no such thing as spin. Why? Because
the members of spin club, if such a thing existed (which it doesn’t), know that spin never stays spun. It always unravels.

David Cameron and Liam Fox are going to find this out the hard way this
week. Presentationally, the run-up to the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) has been almost perfect. Liam Fox’s leaked letter set out the
prospect of cuts that would be so deep they would devastate our forces.
It also set up a villain – the treasury. With the scene set, the prime minister was able to ride to the rescue. And briefings over the weekend suggested that the defence budget had got a great deal – only an eight per cent cut.

But, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Is it an eight per cent cut in real terms
or in cash – the latter would be deep and damaging. Does the eight per cent includeall the adjustments to the equipment programme? Or are they on top?
We’ll see tomorrow, but to avoid getting down in the weeds, it’s worth setting three high-level tests for the SDSR.

First, will it undermine our efforts in Afghanistan? Troop cuts of 20,000 have been floated. Very clever. The intention is that MPs will be relieved when cuts come in at between 5 and 7,000. This may be good spin – but is it wise to tell troops in theatre that 1 in 20 are surplus to requirement? I know we’re all in it together, but this takes it a bit far.

Second, does it remove the ability to make small scale interventions such as the operation in Sierra Leone, where we saved a country that was being violently terrorised by criminal militias? If so, that is a major and damaging change to our capability. Remember the shame you felt when the Tory government failed to act to prevent ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda? Be prepared to feel it again.

Third, does it damage the deterrent? The PM is reported to have asked for more savings on Trident to cover lower cuts in the army. Are we heading for 3 boats – and the end of continuous at-sea deterrence? Or a suggestion that we can safely delay the commissioning? The problem is that prevarication is itself a policy decision – and one that easily tips into decommissioning.

Why? Well if workflow isn’t maintained at Barrow, the workforce won’t just sit around on the dole waiting for the government to make its mind up. They have skills that give them real choices. There is a world-wide revival of civil nuclear power. They can chose their country. And, once scattered, they’ll be near impossible to reassemble in time to get new boats built for the 2020s, when the existing fleet starts to go out of commission.

Each of these is a big question in itself. The subject merits a more public discussion than the treasury-led SDSR (wags in the MOD say it stands for strategic defence spending review since it has been so savings-driven). Unfortunately for the country, the government chose to exclude stakeholders.

Fortunately for Jim Murphy, new shadow defence secretary, they appear to be willing to hand the defence issue straight to Labour.

John McTernan was political secretary to Tony Blair.

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2 Responses to “The Tories are handing defence to Jim Murphy, says John McTernan”

  1. les says:


  2. Dick Muskett says:

    Whilst I share John’s enjoyment of Fox getting himself into a hole, remember the senior generals a century ago who went on insisting on the importance of cavalry when it had been pretty clear since the Crimea that it was irrelevant. The same sort of senior officers today are similarly in thrall to tanks and self propelled artillery, both great for fighting on central european plains but useless in Afghanistan – and Sierra Leone. The cleverer top brass (and there are quite a few of them) would cheerfully ditch most armour and large guns and instead significantly increase the numbers of very highly trained, lightly equipped, fast moving foot soldiers. Lets see what emerges in the full statement, rather than selective briefings to favoured journos.

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