Simon Carr: Not true – but not quite a lie either

Sketch: The PM put out his favourable statistics on helicopters. The trained mind wondered: "How have they fiddled that?"
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The Independent Online

It is easy to misunderstand politicians and sometimes that's the point. Sometimes we're supposed to misunderstand.

What was that thing John Reid said when he sent the Army into Afghanistan? Sceptics had been expressing doubts about fighting in an ungovernable, heavily armed, tribal society with a millennial culture of violence and victory over foreign invaders. Dr John soothed us, saying that the troops might come back home without a shot being fired. Wasn't that it? When Michael Ancram recalled the remark, Dr John leapt to his feet, reddening and shaking with emotion. He hadn't said that. He had been misrepresented.

He said he'd said something completely different – that he would have been "happy" if they'd come back without firing a shot.

It's an inaudible qualification (like the P in "psychopath") but he takes it very seriously now. He says it shows he only wanted them to have a non-aggressive, peace-keeping, cafe society role, liaising and working with the government. It didn't quite turn out like that.

Still, it eased in the troops so they could start fighting under some new defence secretary who wasn't burdened with Dr Reid's pacific instincts. It's a team game, government.

The problems of understanding remain. Nicholas Soames asked if the Defence Secretary would confirm that no infantry regiments would be cut. Bob Ainsworth, that big bag of sawdust, said there were "no plans to cut" any infantry regiments. Remember what Tony Blair was saying almost on the eve of invasion? "No decision has been taken to invade Iraq". And while it wasn't true, it wasn't quite a lie.

The PM put out his favourable statistics on helicopters. They'd increased by 60 per cent and flying time was up by 84 per cent. The trained mind wondered: "How have they fiddled that?" Cameron resolved it in this way: the figures are correct but troop numbers have doubled so there's less helicopter support per soldier than ever. Gordon's defence of the helicopter record involves a storm of unrelated assertions – with nine Merlins at one end, six refurbished Chinooks at the other and £6bn in the middle. Each assertion may or may not be true but the impression he is trying to convey almost certainly has a lot of silent Ps in it.

Oh, and he's going to "increase the number of helicopters on the ground in Afghanistan". Perhaps they'll be used as theme restaurants.