There have been a number of defence related issues arising out of this week’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
Afghanistan War Cabinet
David Cameron told The Sun ‘Our military is at war in Afghanistan, but quite frankly, Whitehall isn’t’
Going on to say he would form a ‘War Cabinet’ of senior ministers, military personnel and intelligence chiefs. Whether this would include the Chancellor was not discussed but one of the biggest factors in the quagmire that is Helmand is the insistence by the Treasury of having a say in almost every decision made. Churchill did not include the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his first War Cabinet and neither did Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands conflict, although John Major included Norman Lamont, the then Chancellor, in his Gulf War (Op Granby) cabinet.
Afghanistan Exit Strategy
In a very frank and realistic assessment, Liam Fox stated that the main political direction for Afghanistan will be driven out of Washington not London and reiterated the need for clear measures of success and a series of benchmarks, rather than a timeline, this seems a sensible way to progress.
We seem to have almost drifted into Afghanistan and there are no really good options but it’s good to see some political leadership in what has become a situation devoid of any, in this respect it’s a good move and should be welcomed but we need a greater clarity in the ‘what’s in it for us’ stakes because the price in blood and treasure is getting very steep.
Cuts in the MoD
I was quite disappointed by Liam Fox’s blunt attack on the MoD Civil Service this week. Although not mentioned in his speech it is believed the aim is to cut the cost of the MoD by 25%.
We don’t believe that the MoD has got the balance right in terms of the amount of resources it devotes to the frontline and the civil service. On coming into office we intend to conduct a capabilities review to look at how we can get a better balance and achieve savings.
That is a fair statement but many have taken this to mean a straight reduction in the numbers of civil service staff. In our previous post on civil servants we highlighted the distribution across the trading funds and top level budgets. It is not possible just to cut the numbers and leave everything else in place. Radical reform is going to be needed and the key to achieving efficiency is NOT a crude headcount reduction but to ensure that the right types of civil servants remain in post and the surplus to requirements civil servants are removed swiftly.
The tool for the job is not an axe, but a scalpel.
Liam Fox as a Future Secretary of State for Defence
David Cameron confirmed that Dr Liam Fox will be the next Secretary of State for Defence should the Conservatives be elected in the forthcoming election.
No doubt Liam Fox cares about the military, look into his background and you will see that, he was previously a civilian Army Medical Officer and much of what he has said in opposition has been sensible.
However, I do think he needs to sharpen his pencil because opposition is a lot easier than being in office and he will face many of the same problems as his Labour counterparts, perhaps even more so. The crude attack on the Civil Service in the MoD smacks of ‘playing to the crowd’ rather than an in depth and well thought through policy that shows a real understanding of his brief. Of course there is nothing unusual or indeed wrong with a politician trying to be popular but I hope there is more to his plan that simply slashing the civil service or our old friend, waste and efficiency.
General Sir Richard Dannatt
Perhaps the most controversial event of the week has been the announcement that the former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, will be appointed as a Conservative Peer and act as a military adviser or junior defence minister.
I want to make one thing plain in the first instance, the General has earned the right to do as he pleases, having demonstrated courage in the face of the enemy (earning a Military Cross early in his career) and moral courage and integrity, very publicly in latter parts of his career., standing up for what he believed to be right and championing the cause of those in his charge.
One cannot have such a long career without making mistakes and errors of judgment, some have leveled a charge of tardiness at his door over the issue of protected patrol vehicles.
An extremely well respected and popular figure, of course it is no shock that a senior General has political sympathies with the Conservative Party but the general convention is that such senior figures if they enter politics, become cross benchers in the Lords, a partisan position places the current defence staff in a difficult position.
Constitutionally, the mixing of politics and the military is accepted by most to run counter to constitutional convention and there is the issue of Queens Regulations, he was still on the MoD’s payroll as a serving soldier when the announcement was made, this being completely contrary to those regulations. Good order and discipline require the even handed application of Queens Regulations so in flouting these, a dangerous precedent could be said to have been set.
On the other hand, it might be simply seen as a popular and knowledgeable ex forces person offering valuable and wise advice to a Conservative team that has little experience in this area.
On balance though, I think it is an ill thought through position to take.
The real value in his criticism of the Labour government and championing the Armed Forces is because it came from a neutral source, a military perspective not a political one. The move into politics diminishes the power of his opinion because he becomes easier to dismiss as being a party stooge.
That said, I can well understand the perspective of both the General and David Cameron and whilst the attacks will come forth and will be made by people who are not fit to lace the Generals shiny shoes, the blows will hit home.
Ultimately this will be to the detriment of those he seeks to provide advocacy for.
The real blame for the politicisation of the forces lies firmly at the feet of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who have used and abused the Armed Forces for over a decade, what did they think would happen if you grandstand on the world stage, rely on the training, determination and can do attitude of the armed forces, basking in their reflected glory but then starve them of cash, be small minded on almost every issue concerning the military covenant, penny pinch in all areas and unleash smear and innuendo when one has the moral courage to stand up for his men and women.
Whilst the motto of the Yorkshire Regiment is Fortune Favours the Brave, it seems the motto of the Labour Party is You Scratch My Back, I’ll Stick a Knife in Yours.
A mistake has been made but good luck Sir, stay low and watch your back (again)