Saturday 1 November 2008

A man without honour

Members of Parliament owe a very special duty to the Armed Forces. Constitutionally and practically, they are the only people in the country who can directly hold the government to account for its actions in putting them in harm's way.

But there is much more to it than that. Unlike any others, the men and women who are placed in this position do so under orders, which they are obliged to obey, even if that might put their lives at risk. They are not entitled to refuse those orders and, furthermore, they are not allowed to complain.

Under certain circumstances, the very act of complaining publicly might be a criminal offence – a breach either of the disciplinary code or of the Official Secrets Act. Short of resigning – and not always even then – members of the Armed Forces do not have freedom of speech.

In recognition of this unique position, there is a convention – unwritten as far as I know, but I am open to correction – that a serving member of the Armed Forces is entitled to communicate with his or her MP, specifically to make complaints about terms of service or other matters, including such issues as poor equipment which needlessly puts their lives at risk.

At the receiving end, MPs are the only people outside the military and government who may receive communications from the military dealing with confidential or secret matters who may themselves not be prosecuted for addressing them or using them in a manner for which they think fit.

They may even broadcast that material in the House of Commons, under the safeguard of Parliamentary privilege and stand immune from any action the government might otherwise wish to take.

Most MPs know of and understand this important position – although a distressing number do not. It places a special burden on them, requiring them to take communications from servicemen and women very seriously.

In the manner of things though – and there is no point in complaining, for this is the way the world works – MPs from the government party will tend to support their government, and thus the status quo. They will first seek to defend government actions rather than attack them. That is their "mindset" – what they are paid to do.

It thus falls to opposition MPs, more than those from the government benches, to take up issues raised, to pursue them and to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion, insofar as that is achievable.

They have at their disposal a wide range of "weapons" – ranging from the written Parliamentary question to the full-blow debate in the House, and much more – by which or through which means they can bring the government to account, harry it and – if need be, make bloody nuisances of themselves.

To be fair, the government – even this tarnished excuse of a government which has driven a coach and horses through the finer points of the constitution – recognises this. MPs who are seriously engaged in the issues are invariably treated with unfailing courtesy. Very often, they are given more, not less, information than they ask for. In a number of subtle and sometimes quite unexpected ways, they are given considerable help in pursuing their appointed tasks.

The other side of that coin is that normal party political rules do not – or should not – apply to defence issues. There is a tacit recognition that the common cause, the welfare and survival of the Armed Forces transcends the often petty party bickering. MPs who breach this "code", however, and who use privileged or sensitive information for party or personal advantage - or who just spend their time "scoring points" - find their information sources drying up. They are cut out of the loop.

For opposition MPs, though, there is advantage to be gained. Simply by conducting the business of opposition, responsibly, fairly and diligently, MPs can show themselves worthy of public trust and thence, in the fullness of time, as fit for office in government.

This is what we were trying to convey in our earlier piece on the "failure of opposition" – charting the abject failure of the Conservative Party to get to grips with the issue of equipping the Army with suitable armoured vehicles.

We are now seeing all sorts creeping out of the woodwork into the media, to add their chorus of disapproval of the government's tardy and disjointed actions in this area – all on the back of Thomas Harding's excellent piece in The Daily Telegraph, about which we have already commented.

One of those is Patrick Mercer, dismissed even by his own side a "rent-a-mouth", who – as we have already observed – is quick to grap a cheap headline, but when it comes to the hard graft of opposition – and was needed when it when it really counted - was conspicuously absent.

But festering at the heart of the midden which is Conservative Party defence policy is shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth. This is a man with whom we have had previous brushes.

This is also the man who, in a recent defence debate welcomed the "investment in the new range of armoured vehicles for Afghanistan" for which, he claimed without so much as a blush, "I and others called three years ago."

He did not. He could not have done. The announcement on the deployment of troops to that theatre was not made until January 2006 – somewhat less than three years ago. It is only just over two years since troops were actually deployed.

Three years ago, however, we were embroiled in one of the most bitter phases of the Iraqi campaign and it was then – in respect of that theatre - that a campaign started with the aim of improving the equipment available – and, in particular, the armoured vehicles to deal with the IED threat.

From the ensuing debate, Gerald Howarth – although opposition spokesman for defence procurement - was conspicuously absent. His one intervention at the time was a statement, still on his website, of 11 July 2006 in response to an admission by the then Defence secretary Des Browne that there was a "capability gap" in our armoured vehicle inventory. Mr Howarth indicated his agreement - his sole, substantive contribution to the early phase of the debate.

His only earlier intervention was in October 2004 - when troops were already being slaughtered in Land Rovers in Iraq. Then he was concerned to learn what changes had been made and were planned to allow the Land Rover to be fitted with the Bowman Radio, and how many servicemen and women involved in the trials of the Bowman Radio had suffered minor radio-frequency burns.

That is a measure of the man but, more to the point, a measure of the lethal inadequacy of the Conservative defence effort. As the leading representative, in the all-important procurement field, Mr Howarth should resign. He will not of course. He would not even recognise – or even be capable of understanding – that he had done anything wrong. But he is a man without honour. He should go.

In my next post about him, I will explain exactly why.