Bruce Anderson: Nothing incriminates Mr Brown like his contempt for the Army

As a result of his malfeasance, men have died who ought to have lived
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The Independent Online

We do not need to call in the psychiatrists. Hitherto, Gordon Brown's behaviour has seemed incomprehensible, but the answer is now clear. The indecisiveness, the self-pity, the chronic nervous strain, the constant ill-temper, the barely-suppressed violence: all is explained, on the assumption that the Prime Minister still has the residue of a conscience, and that his personality is crumbling under the stress of telling all those lies.

This does not mean that he should be forgiven. Lying to Parliament used to be regarded as just about the gravest offence that a politician could commit. But there is a worse one: lying to or about the armed forces. That is what Mr Brown has done, repeatedly: the worst crime of his premiership. No government could guarantee that there would never be a shortage of equipment. But any government worthy of the name would guarantee to uphold the military covenant. This is an implicit understanding between the nation and the armed forces. Although there could never be an adequate recompense for the forces' courage and sacrifice, the soldier's willingness to do his duty should never be exploited – and nor should senior officers' willingness to persevere through shortages, managing on make do and mend. There should be adequate levels of equipment. There must also be honesty.

At the Labour Conference in 2007, Mr Brown wanted to portray himself as the soldiers' friend. So he announced that 1,000 men would be coming back from Afghanistan before Christmas. Anyone listening to him would have assumed that this was a significant reduction in the scale of our commitment. That would have been especially true of those who would listen intently when troop numbers were discussed: wives, children, parents, girlfriends. In one respect, life is easier for the fighting men. They have no time to worry and sleep comes easily after long hours in combat. Those at home have to cope and look cheerful, even when their hearts and minds are 4,000 miles away: even with the constant waking nightmare of the padre on the doorstep. But the Army is good at providing support.

After Mr Brown had finished speaking, a few hundred people would have thought that they could soon dispense with that support, and start planning the welcome home party. They then discovered that of the 1,000, 270 were already home, and another 500 knew their return date. Anxiety removed and then re-imposed is anxiety redoubled. Was that really a price worth paying for a cheap headline? How could anyone with a basic level of imaginative sympathy – a rudimentary level of decency – have behaved like that? When the "anyone" is Mr Brown, that is a stupid question.

But this is not his worst offence. Raising and dashing the hopes of families who had earned their nation's gratitude, trampling on the military contract in pursuit of a cheap stunt: those are merely among the 183 other offences to be taken into consideration. The real crime is homicide. Mr Brown is guilty of corporate manslaughter. Let us suppose that the directors of a mining firm were warned by their safety experts – warned repeatedly – that crucial pieces of equipment were defective and that lives would be lost if they remained in service. Let us also suppose that the directors repeatedly disregarded those warnings. That firm would be facing bankruptcy-level damages: the directors, gaol. Morally, Mr Brown is in no better shape than those directors.

In 1998, the armed forces negotiated a Strategic Defence Review, and the senior officers were content with the outcome. There had been an intellectually respectable attempt to reconcile resources and commitments. Though money would be tight – nothing new about that – there was a real-terms increase. With juggling and shoe-horning, the defence budget could be made to work. But Mr Brown ensured that it would not work. He squeezed and chiselled away. Even as the commitments mounted – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor – he demanded annual efficiency savings, as if the forces were not already overstretched. There was an inevitable consequence. The Army was desperately short of the two workhorses of modern warfare: helicopters and armoured vehicles.

The Snatch Land Rover has been a good servant to the British Army. But it has long since passed pensionable age. In Afghanistan, it offers a seriously insufficient level of protection. Yet the Army has been forced to persevere with it because there is nothing else. That is because Mr Brown would not provide the money. For years, everyone has known that the Army did not have enough helicopters. Mr Brown's response? In 2004, he cut the helicopter budget by £1.4bn. Yet on Friday, he insisted that the forces had received everything they asked for. How could he have the nerve to make such a preposterous claim? Within hours, two former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Michael Boyce and Charles Guthrie, had accused him of dishonesty. Such eminent persons would only speak in that way under intense provocation and in response to gross violations of the truth. By the time of their castigation, the PM was in Afghanistan, vote-hunting. To assist in this, it was announced that there would be an order for 200 armoured vehicles to replace Snatch. There is only one problem with that. The announcement had already been made, 18 months ago. Then, the figure was 400. What is a strong word for "shameless"?

Yet Mr Brown is at least consistent, in vote-hunting. When General Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff, he said that he would offer a defence briefing to any Cabinet minister who wanted one. They all happily accepted, except Mr Brown. He only took an interest when there was a procurement decision involving the Rosyth dockyard in his constituency. Then, as now, he regarded the armed forces as vote-fodder. Beyond that, they aroused his resentments because they were increasingly inspiring Tony Blair's enthusiasm. Mr Brown had seized control of the domestic agenda. But even he could not challenge Mr Blair's primacy in defence and foreign affairs. Tony Blair came to admire the armed forces. That was enough to provoke Mr Brown. He would regularly turn on ministers who enjoyed Mr Blair's favour. For the same reason, he turned on the armed forces. It was an insane way to run a government – and ultimately, that was Mr Blair's fault.

In the course of one dispute, Mr Blair told Charles Guthrie that he was convinced, but could Charles deal directly with Mr Brown? As Tony Blair must have known, that did not work. Mr Brown was not open to reason. Tony Blair wanted the forces to have something? That was sufficient reason to deny them, and no CDS, even if he were as forceful as Charles Guthrie, could overrule a Chancellor. Only a Prime Minister could do that. Mr Blair's failure to do so was cowardice in the face of the enemy, which was how he almost always behaved, when faced with Mr Brown.

As a result of Mr Brown's malfeasance – abetted by Mr Blair's cowardice – men have died who should have lived: men have been crippled who could have escaped with minor injuries. All war leads to a butcher's bill. Even with the best equipment, there comes the moment when discipline, training, group-bonding, patriotism and courage must inspire flesh and blood to stand up to lead and high explosive. Flesh and blood do not always win. The gods of battles choose the best and the bravest to dine with them in Valhalla. War means heart-rending sacrifices. It is the duty of prime ministers to minimise those sacrifices: few duties more solemn. This one has treated that duty with contempt. "You've ruined my life" he once yelled at Tony Blair. What nonsense, what pathetic nonsense. But lives have been lost, because Mr Brown would not do his duty and Tony Blair would not make him.