Wednesday, 17 October 2007

An absence of policy

You would not have known it from the media, but there was a debate on defence policy in the House of Commons yesterday – not just any old debate, but one of only four in the year on this subject, this one being regarded as the main event. To that effect, over six hours were devoted to it, occupying most of the day's session, with no time restrictions imposed on MPs who wished to speak.

As so often, however, it was thinly attended by MPs – we counted only eight opposition MPs in the chamber and, at times, the number was down to two. But, even at their lowest ebb, the MPs must have outnumbered the journalists, as not one single report in today's media can be found of the event. Thus, whenever the media tell you how important defence is to the nation, and how we should care for the welfare of our troops, their statements might be measured by their own performance.

So it is, though, that the MPs should be judged. Those many who blather about the need to support our troops were voluble by their absence. And, by and large, most of the few that did speak were ill-prepared, offering formulaic speeches that added little to the fount of human knowledge.

Furthermore, it was an ill-natured debate, characterised by acrimonious exchanges between the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne (pictured right), and his "shadow", Liam Fox (below left), from the Conservative benches.

But what really highlighted the divide was an intervention from Bernard Jenkin – the Conservative MP for North Essex and a member of the defence committee. He challenged Des Browne on the level of defence spending, complaining that we were falling "far behind" so many of our international comparators. This brought the following response from Browne, in which he starts off by saying:

The first point that I make to the hon. Gentleman - and others in his party who constantly look for comparators to justify, in their terms, the allegation of cuts in UK defence spending, which they have thankfully moved away from - is that our real-terms growth in defence spending contrasts significantly with what happened during the last years of the Government whom he supported. They cut defence spending by £0.5 billion a year in real terms.
But this is just an oeuvre. Warming to his theme, Browne then continues:

The challenge for him and his Front-Bench spokesmen is not whether they can compare spending in the UK, in its particular circumstances, with spending in any other country that they might identify. I could identify many countries where the comparison goes the other way.

The challenge for his party is to match the level of spending to which we have committed in the spending review and to say whether it intends to spend more on defence—and, if so, to say what it would spend that money on and which public services it would cut in order to spend it. If the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench spokesmen are not prepared to engage in that debate, they cannot be allowed to seek solace in comparisons that they have drawn out of the air.
And that really does set out the terms of the debate. In his own speech, Liam Fox aired the familiar litany of complaints, but also ventured that his Party supported all of the current major spending projects – including the Eurofighter, the two carriers and FRES.

On the basis of that, his concern about overstretch, his demands for better housing, medical facilities, pay and allowances – to say nothing of compensation for injured personnel – all imply significant spending increases yet, despite constant challenges, Fox refused in any way to affirm that there was any commitment to increased defence funding.

It was then Labour MP Don Touhig, himself a former defence minister, who observed that Fox should "take a lead from his leader" – David Cameron - who had said in a webcast interview recently, "There is no magic pot of money we can dip into to spend...on our armed forces." There we have it, said Touhig, "if the Tories were in power, there would be no more for the armed forces."

Fox later tried to dismiss this attack as a "red herring" but he cannot gloss over what is a huge lacuna in the whole Conservative approach to defence. Unless the Tories are prepared to engage in the funding debate, they do not have a serious (or any) defence policy.