The Sketch: The minister's mind triumphs over matter

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The Independent Online

"I do not seek to present the situation as anything other than it is," the Minister of Defence said in his longest, windiest, most circumlocutory way. Even junior cynics took that as an indication of mendacity. "I'm explaining in a very honest and straightforward way," he said, just to confirm the impression of shiftiness.

Actually, he did say things, if by mistake, that took us by surprise. "My office has leaked information to the Conservative opposition," he told us at one point. That's not something you often hear from the front bench. And then, to Michael Meacher: "Our mission objective has changed." Is that common knowledge? He'd been asked what the objective was in sending these extra troops to Afghanistan, and how we might know when they could come home.

If you remember, John Reid as a previous Minister of War had told us the Army was there in the capacity of redcoats rather than redcaps, to organise the happiness of Afghans. We might get our boys home without a shot being fired, Dr Rotty had said, not seeking to present the situation as anything other than it was.

But now it's Des and Des says we are sending an armoured mobile battle group to knock seven bells out of the Taliban, and it can only come home when "the government of Afghanistan is able to deliver security and economic prosperity". In four or five hundred years, then.

He also told us the number of helicopters is "below the Joint Statement of Requirement". That was very honest and straightforward of him. But then he told us the Army has everything it asks for. The Prime Minister always says that too, to add to the cynics' position.

How do they manage that? Even by their own assessment the Army is under-supplied.

As we know, they never tell outright lies, so they must have a clever way of presenting the situation as something other than it is. They might have a tight definition of "ask for". They mean the Army gets everything it formally requests in requisition orders signed by the joint chiefs of staff. But the generals are only allowed to ask for things that are capable of being supplied. If they know it's not available they're not allowed to ask for it. Is that it? "We remain committed to them [absent helicopters] being available," he explained, in a triumph of mind over matter.

He is sending 1,400 more troops but also says "it's no reflection on the current capability" of forces. That is, the current level of troops is adequate. We're sending more even though they are not needed. But of course they are, because our national interest and the peace of the world depend on them. It must be true, because he said it.

sketch@simoncarr.co.uk

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