Tuesday 4 November 2008

A narrowness of vision

Having railed, not infrequently, at the hyper-excitement of the groupuscules, as they prattle over the weekly "joust" that has turned Prime Ministers Questions into a bigger joke than it ever was, one is driven to muse on the narrowness of vision that currently defines modern politics.

For many of the so-called political commentators, it is the high-profile events like PMQs and the occasional debate in the House, where a "rebellion" or some such is threatened, that consumes almost their entire attention. Outside that foetidly narrow, almost claustrophobic horizon, nothing else seems to exist.

Subjects like defence, therefore, are relegated to their own specialist "corners". Blogs like this one, for instance, are not considered to be political, and the subjects addressed are largely ignored by the "mainstream" pundits.

The bizarre thing is that there are few subjects more political than defence and, should there be any doubt about that, one just has to look in on defence questions, the subject of one of yesterday's posts.

Yet, the only topic to emerge into the wider domain was the vexed question of "Snatch" Land Rovers and the Conservative Party attempt to extract an apology from Quentin Davies, the defence equipment minister, for his alleged slight of the officer who resigned complaining about "inadequate equipment".

The proceedings themselves were a classic example of what an old parliamentary hand once described as "hunting as a pack", MPs acting in concert, focusing tightly on one point in order to achieve a specific aim.

In the event, the Conservative "pack" achieved its aim – something which sounded sufficiently like an apology for them to claim the headlines. And the way they did it is an interesting illustration of how the parliamentary dynamics work.

Crucially, oral questions to ministers are framed and tabled some time in advance and, under the procedural rules, questioners may not deviate from the subject matter. Where – as was the case here – the matter at hand is of recent origin, it will not be covered directly by a question, which thus requires some inventiveness to enable it to be broached.

The first question on the order paper, in this instance, was one from Lib-Dem MP Malcolm Bruce who asked the defence minister Bob Ainsworth (pictured): "What recent steps he has taken to maintain and enhance morale in the armed forces." That, without requiring too much imagination – otherwise he would have been lost – gave Patrick Mercer his intro, with this supplementary question:

Last year, my old battalion had to patrol in Snatch vehicles, and it has been told that when it goes back again in the spring of next year, it will have to continue patrolling in Snatch vehicles. It refers to them as coffins. Will the Minister comment on the effect that that will have on morale, please?
Next in line was Crispin Blunt, who adopted a similar strategy, himself asking:

What effect does it have on morale when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), blames the commanders for their choice of vehicle, saying:

"in retrospect, a commander chose the wrong piece of equipment, the wrong vehicle, for the particular threat that the patrol or whatever it was encountered and we had some casualties as a result"?
For the commanders on the spot, frequently those choices were certainly not available, as has been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). Surely it is simply unsustainable for a Minister to say these things.
These two questions, however, were merely the opening salvoes, preparing the ground for the main assault by Liam Fox, the Tory defence "top gun". He asked:

When a loyal and committed officer resigns and cites a specific reason, he should be treated with the utmost seriousness. When, instead, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) says that it was:

"such a travesty of reality that it is actually quite difficult to take this at first face value,"
it is not only damaging to morale but, frankly, a disgrace. And, when the Under-Secretary said that there were

"a couple of odd things about this resignation",
what exactly did he mean, and when will he apologise?
This brought a protest from Ainsworth that:

We do take the complaint seriously; we do take the resignation seriously. We do not accept that we are in any way cavalier with our people's safety. We put that at the absolute top of our priorities, and all of us in the ministerial team will continue to do so.
Fox, with one supplementary allowed, returned to the attack:

Still no apology - yet the Under-Secretary's offence went beyond damaging morale and his own arrogant dismissal of a loyal and committed officer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, the Under-Secretary said:

"there may be occasions when in retrospect, a commander chose the wrong piece of equipment".
Yet is it not increasingly clear that, on the occasion in question, commanders had no choice but to use Snatch Land Rovers? How can it be that after six years and more than £10 billion in spending, we still do not have the armoured vehicles that we require? And, why did the Under-Secretary not take time to discover the facts before opening his mouth and bad-mouthing our commanders?
Ainsworth, as minister, gets the last word in these exchanges. He replied: "My hon. Friend meant no offence. He was trying to explain to people that we need a suite of vehicles in theatre. That was all he was trying to do, and he did not mean to cause any offence to anyone at all."

The "pack" had by no means finished though. The third question, by Linda Gilroy, a Labour MP from Plymouth asked how many Royal Navy personnel were deployed in Afghanistan and, unlikely though it might have been, that gave Tory grandee Douglas Hogg his opportunity:

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is very important that whenever Royal Navy personnel are deployed they are deployed in appropriately armoured vehicles? The Minister for the Armed Forces really should avoid suggesting that serious casualties have been caused by officers on the ground choosing wrong vehicles. That is inaccurate, untrue, deeply offensive to their commanders, and damaging to morale.
He really should not have got away with that one - it was not even framed as a question - but, thus emboldened, Julian Brazier took a flyer on the back of a question by Paul Flynn who had asked about the area of territory in Afghanistan under the control of the Taleban. Asked Brazier:

Does the Minister of State accept that the welcome news that he announced on better armoured vehicles for protecting conventional forces are no substitute for ensuring that all our special forces have proper cross-country vehicles? Will he take the opportunity to offer the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) the chance to apologise at the Dispatch Box to Major Morley for his remarks at the weekend?
Then, in topical questions – the bit at the end where anything goes, we got Andrew Robathan, a former SAS officer, who stated:

In June, three members of my former regiment were killed in a Snatch Land Rover in Afghanistan. Their squadron commander has now resigned, citing their deaths as one reason for his resignation, but he finds himself blamed for them by a Minister of the Crown. Apart from the very real pain that any commander feels at the death of one of his troops, no special forces would ever choose a Land Rover without proper cross-country capability for operations. These were, however, the only vehicles available. Will the Secretary of State disassociate himself from the remarks of his—very junior—Minister, and apologise not only to Major Morley, but to the families of the dead? The father of one said today …
The verbosity brought a rebuke from the Speaker, and a reply from Quentin Davies himself, bringing this exchange:

The hon. Gentleman obviously does not know that this morning outside the House I expressed my regrets to the father of one of our gallant soldiers who has died, and who apparently said via the media—he did not say this directly to me—that he had been upset by my remarks. I apologised unreservedly to him and expressed my deep regrets. Obviously, any offence caused was entirely inadvertent; I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that. If I were to have some reason to suppose that operational commanders have been offended by any remarks I have made, I would also apologise very clearly and directly to them. I take it the hon. Gentleman did not hear the broadcast in question, but if he were to do me the courtesy of reading the full transcript —

Mr. Robathan: I have.

Mr. Davies: Well, in that case the hon. Gentleman will have seen that a lot of my argument was designed to explain that it was quite wrong and totally impossible to blame retrospectively, with hindsight, commanding officers for decisions that had been taken and where eventually there had been fatalities, as, unfortunately, happens in warfare. He will have seen from that transcript that some—deservedly—laudatory remarks were made about the quality of our commanding officers and, of course, of our troops as a whole.
Still the "pack" had not finished. Michael Fabricant then intervened, addressing the Speaker: "You, Mr. Speaker, will know that there is a protocol that Ministers never blame civil servants, and there is a similar protocol that Ministry of Defence Ministers never blame commanders in the field. Whatever the weasel words we have just heard, will the Secretary of State …"

The Speaker cut that off – "weasel words" is unparliamentary language – with a warning about using "temperate language". This left Mark Francois, at the tail end of the pack, to deliver something of a rant:

As the ministerial head of the armed forces, the Secretary of State will appreciate the importance of loyalty, as will all his fellow Ministers. On that basis, will he advise those Ministers to use temperate language when referring to our commanders in the field and the great things that they do, as do those who fight for them and for this country?
Wearily, the secretary of state himself, John Hutton, closed the matter:

All Defence Ministers will use temperate language to describe all these matters. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has dealt with this matter very clearly. In this place, it is right and proper that we all give praise where praise is due, and nowhere is that more appropriate, right now, than in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan. That is the collective view of Ministers, and I strongly sense that it is the collective view of the House.
No doubt, the Tories felt mightily pleased with their endeavours. They got their headlines and skewered Davies, whom they hate as a renegade Tory, having crossed the floor last year.

But, what did they actually achieve for that expenditure of skill, plotting, organisation and man hours? Briefly, they may have had the Labour defence team on the back foot, but the Tories were playing the man not the ball. They elicited no further information on the decision-making that went into the deployment and retention in theatre of the "Snatch" and nor at any time did they threaten to expose any of the inefficiencies and delays in the system.

In short, the session offered a classic example of parliamentary theatre – all heat and no light. The groupuscules should have been cheering from the sidelines, score-cards at the ready, rejoicing at another victory for their "team".

As it is, they will have to wait until PMQs and the really big hitters. This was only the B-team playing.