Sunday 21 August 2005

Lying for Tony

Nothing is true in politics until it has been denied by a minister. And, in the wake of Booker's column last week, we have Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Adam Ingram, writing to The Sunday Telegraph to say that Christopher Booker is, yet again, wrong.

The MoD has not embarked on a secret programme to "Europeanise" our forces through the backdoor of equipment procurement, he claims. "The basis of our procurement process is clear: in an open competition, any company (UK, European, American or otherwise) can bid for a MoD contract. Ultimately, contractors are chosen on the basis of value for money for the UK taxpayer."

Interestingly, I am just reading Peter Oborne’s book, The Rise of Political Lying, in which he declares:

Britain now lives in a post-truth political environment. Public statements are no longer fact based, but operational. Realities and political narratives are constructed to serve a purpose, dismantled, and the show moves on. This is new. All governments have contained liars and most politicians deceive each other and the public from time to time. But in recent years mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system.
It is in that context that Ingram's statement and the rest of his letter must be read. He is writing a "political narrative" constructed to serve a purpose. Its aim is to deceive.

Take for instance, his phrasing: "The basis of our procurement process is clear: in an open competition, any company… can bid for a MoD contract." Read superficially, it would appear to suggest that all MoD competitions are "open", but if you read the words carefully, he does not actually say that. He simply makes an assertion to the effect that, if MoD competitions were open – which is not always the case – any company could bid.

Of course, not all competitions are "open" and, in any case, it depends what you mean by the word. The Type 45 Destroyer competition was open in the sense that bids were invited to build the ships. But, a complex system like an air-defence warship is basically a platform for the radar and missiles and the government had already decided on that equipment. Thus, any potential supplier who already had his own package would not be interested in just building the platform. The options were already closed down before the bids were invited. Was that an "open" competition?

Then there is the Panther contract. Bids were invited and three companies were short-listed, who submitted four vehicle types for assessment. Then, at the behest of the MoD – after the shortlist had closed – another vehicle was entered – the Italian-built Panther – which subsequently won the contract. Was that an "open" competition, where the MoD selects the very vehicle it enters for the competition?

As for the claim that contractors are chosen for "value for money for the UK taxpayer", the Panther is as good example as any of how that is not true. Purchased at £413,000 each for what amounts to an armoured SUV, the contract cost £166 million when the same number of up-armoured Humvees would have cost the taxpayer £40 million. How is that value for money?

In his column this week, Booker just happens to address this very subject of value for money, the cost of the government's "Europe first" policy. At the time of writing, we had worked out this had wasted just over £5 billion, which is serious money. To that must also be added the £830 million wasted on the Storm Shadow, which brings it up to over £5.8 billion.

But, writes Booker, all this pales beside the proposed £14 billion cost of the 3,500 Swedish-made vehicles equipped with French-made guns we are buying to equip three brigades of the British Army under the FRES (Future Rapid Effects System), at a cost of £4.6 billion per brigade. The US Army is to equip 36 brigades with its comparable but vastly superior FCS (Future Combat System) at a cost of only £1.8 billion each. Yet until 1999 we were equal partners with the US in developing this project. That is another £8 billion down the drain.

Returning to the egregious Ingram, his letter goes on to challenge Booker about the 2000 "Framework Agreement", with him claiming that the agreement "aims to remove barriers to industrial co-operation in the European defence market." He continues:

This is a sensible agreement, which encourages nations to examine the possibility of co-operative procurement programmes in order to avoid wasteful duplication. Encouraging this is something we seek to do with many of our allies, not just these five European nations.
This, in the style of mendacity employed by this government, is not altogether untrue, but the "agreement" is a lot more than that. For a start, it is a formal treaty and, as we pointed out, it commits the parties to:

…establishing a long term master-plan that would present a common view of their future operational needs. This would constitute a framework for harmonised equipment acquisition planning and would provide orientation for a harmonised defence related R&T policy.
In this context, the use of the word "encourage" is far too bland, to the point of being positively misleading. The Treaty imposes – I stress imposes – specific obligations, to whit, "at each stage of the acquisition process, the Parties shall undertake regular and comprehensive exchanges of Documents and other relevant information and shall undertake co-operative work." Note, twice in one sentence, the word shall is used. The treaty provisions are not optional.

Ingram then goes on to say that the "Agreement" was not signed in secret. This is the "straw dog" ploy. Booker did not say it was signed in secret. What he did write was:

…everything about the way it was drawn up seemed calculated to hide its true significance. Signed by Geoff Hoon, as Defence Secretary, at the Farnborough Air Show on July 27, 2000, it was given the blandly misleading description of a "framework agreement" concerning "measures to facilitate the restructuring and operation of the European defence industry".
In his letter, Ingram continues the process. Never once does he refer to the Agreement as a Treaty and he makes no reference to the fact that it imposes specific and detailed obligations on the signatories. All he can offer is that the House of Commons Defence Committee reviewed the Agreement and was content for ratification to proceed – as if the approval of a Labour-dominated committee made any difference

To conclude, Ingram argues that "we are not embarked on a programme of cutting our Defence ties with America in pursuit of a 'European Army'". In his original, unedited letter, he says this is "is plainly and ludicrously wrong," calling in aid, "last year's Defence White Paper" which, he says, was "quite clear":

The most demanding operations could only conceivably be undertaken alongside the US, either as a NATO operation or a US led coalition. Cooperation with our European allies on humanitarian or peace-keeping operations is not occurring at the expense of our close relationship with the USA.
This passage is true, but it bears no relation to the denial preceding it, which makes it a particularly clever lie. What Ingram says applies only at the moment. It is undeniably the case that "the most demanding operations" could only be undertaken with the US, which is why the EU set out the European Capabilities Action Plan and the 2010 "Headline Goal" to redress that situation in order that the EU could mount autonomous military operations. What applies now will not apply in the future, if the "colleagues" can help it.

Furthermore, it is not the "humanitarian or peace-keeping operations" which are affecting our relationship with the US. It is the process of re-equipping the armed forces to take part in the European Rapid Reaction Force, with the intention of carrying out "peace-making" operations, that is doing the damage.

But then, Ingram is a government minister in an administration that believes in "constructing the truth". A good and faithful servant, he is simply, as Oborne would put it, "lying for Tony".