The last 24 hours will have left Theresa May in no doubt of the difficulty she faces in dealing with the increasingly maverick President of the United States. But she has no shortage of adversaries on the domestic front either. The Remainers in her Party who think she’s going too far and the Brexiteers who think she’s not going far enough.
Now a new flank has opened up as the possible consequences to the defence budget of the current review on national security become apparent. The unexpected appointee as Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, has gone native already and is putting it about that he needs more money while Tobias Elwood, already a minister in the MoD, is reported to have said he will resign if there is any reduction in defence capability. The Prime Minister seems to find opposition wherever she looks.
Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the country. It is a long time since there were so many members in the House of Commons with direct military experience. And in the House of Lords there is an abundance of wisdom from former senior commanders of all three armed services.
Experience and wisdom has never been more needed than it is today. As the possible impact on the defence budget of the current Government’s security review becomes apparent, the military voices are not alone. Politicians of all parties and of none are united in their condemnation of the leaked proposals being considered for the future structure of our armed forces.
They have every reason to be anxious. The history of such reviews of defence capability is, to put it mildly, chequered with the possible exception of Labour’s review in 1997. Who now remembers the misleadingly-titled “Options for Change” introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 or its successor in 1994, “Front Line First”? These were both euphemisms for cutting defence expenditure.
Should defence expenditure be sacrosanct? Of course not. But if you want a successful defence review, there are three essential steps in order to make sense. First, define your foreign and domestic policy objectives; second, assess the military assets necessary to enable these objectives to be met; and third, make the necessary financial provision.
It is easy to set out what is needed. But with the exception of the 1997 review, step-by-step analysis has been absent. And even the outcome of Labour’s review was criticised since it never set out its foreign policy baseline. Even if it had, no one would’ve guessed that the United Kingdom would play special constable to America’s policeman in the ill-fated military action against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But the worst failure to provide a logical basis for any reduction of defence expenditure was surely the exercise carried out between May and September 2010 by the newly-elected coalition government.
It is not difficult to accept that you won’t get a coherent outcome if you tell the MoD, “here is all the money you’re going to get, now go away and construct a defence policy out of it”. It was also authoritatively claimed that the Ministry of Defence was told by the Treasury that any delay could result in less money being available than was being offered. Against that background it is hardly surprising that the review came nowhere near to what was required. The Treasury’s decision thereafter that the annual cost of the nuclear deterrent had to be met out of the regular defence budget and was no longer to be provided by separate government funding simply piled on the agony.
And now well-sourced reports tell us that under consideration are reductions in the numbers of the Army, the numbers of the Marines, and the number of surface ships available to the Royal Navy, including HMS Albion.
Government ministers when challenged about these reports simply respond by describing them as speculative. But one decision cannot be so easily dismissed as it is public knowledge that the order for replacement Apache helicopters has been reduced from 50 to 38.
Does any of this matter? There is already anecdotal evidence that morale, an essential part of the effectiveness of our armed forces, is being affected.
The private doubts previously expressed by our closest ally, the United States, are now being voiced in public. And our moral authority in calling upon other Nato allies to meet their financial responsibility is weakened. Military credibility, which is an essential part of deterrence, will be undermined. Most worrying is the inevitable consequence that the options open to the Prime Minister at any time of national emergency will inevitably be limited by lack of capacity and resilience.
It is easy to say that the Government must listen and learn but those in the both Houses of Parliament with military experience have a unique role to play. In the Commons the Government’s majority is so narrow that MPs have the greatest influence. They should remind the Government at every opportunity that its primary responsibility is the protection of its citizens and the preservation of our national interest. If enough of them are willing to follow the lead given by Tobias Elwood and decline to support any reduction in capability, the Government can be persuaded to change its mind. They should be putting country before party. Putting country before Party will only mean doing their duty.
Menzies Campbell is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for defence
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