View from City Road: Sir Michael says he is sorry

Despite the apology of Sir Michael Graydon, the chief of the Air Staff, to the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary, many people will remain suspicious about whether the Treasury did indeed indulge in underhand tactics during the public spending round.

For the first time in many years, the defence budget suffered critical scrutiny even in Conservative newspapers. But Sir Michael is being super-sensitive if he supposes that the nascent public debate is anything more than a reflection of the reduced threat to these islands thanks to the end of the Cold War combined with the reduced circumstances of the exchequer.

The Government is facing a borrowing requirement worth 8 per cent of national income at a time when defence is taking 4.1 per cent of national income, a higher share than that of France at 3.4 per cent or Germany at 2.2 per cent. The last substantial review of defence spending - Options for Change - took place in 1990, before the full scale of the Soviet collapse had been appreciated.

There is no reason to believe that the Treasury relaxed its normal rule, which is that it never briefs the press during public spending rounds. The Treasury simply does not believe that public debate helps the control of public spending, since it merely excites special interests.

Indeed, the Treasury is probably the Whitehall department least committed to open government. Should Sir Michael or anyone else doubt this, we can assure him that we asked the Treasury for a briefing. And we were refused.

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