26 Mar 15. With prorogation marking the formal end of the current parliamentary session imminent and to be followed on Monday, March 30th by formal dissolution of Parliament we can, following today’s awkward and rather unnecessary debate on how a future ‘Speaker’ of the House of Commons might be chosen, reckon that Government business has now all but come to an end until ‘proclamation’ (an event that would normally be anticipated a couple of weeks after the General Election result) occurs, hopefully during May.
With all eyes on constituency business, re-election or sometimes retirement should the outgoing MP have decided not to stand, Westminster will soon be relatively empty. This also means we will be saying goodbye to a number of hugely helpful civil service friends and advisors right across Whitehall including inside No 10 who have decided not to return after the May 7th General Election. They have worked hard not only to support the Coalition Government in its work but also those of us who come into regular contact with them.
In a ‘Commentary’ that I wrote back in May 2010 that followed the round of hard work that was done by the Conservative and Lib-Dems to put together a Coalition Government I said that not only did I believe that the Coalition would survive the whole five-year term but also that I very much hoped that it would. We might not have thought it at the time but the reality is probably that we got what we needed for the time. Well, I got my wish, the Coalition Government has certainly delivered and I take nothing back from what I had said back then.
We will as I have already suggested lose a large number of MP’s and former ministers who have chosen to stand down or that may not necessarily win back seats that they are contesting. Some of them are MP’s whose work in the House we have very much appreciated such as the former chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, James Arbuthnot. Others departing come into the category of those that we have we have either liked or maybe simply loved to hate. Sir Peter Luff comes into the former category although I have to say that given some of his occasional outbursts I sometimes scratch my head to reason why! Francis Maude is quite definitely one who falls into the latter category and as someone who, along with his fellow Cabinet Office colleague Oliver Letwin, just does not seem to get the message about defence I will not be shedding any tears over the formers’ decision not to seek re-election as an MP. There are others too but along with Arbuthnot, Luff, Maude and another seventy three Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Plaid Cymru MP’s standing down are included two excellent former Foreign Secretaries in the form of Jack Straw and William Hague. I wish them all of them well and particularly those that I have had the pleasure of meeting and occasionally working with over the past five years.
Next week writs will be issued for elections to be held in all 650 constituencies and by the day after the May 7th polling day on the morning of May 8th, a day that I would remind also happens to be the seventieth anniversary of VE Day marking the end of the war in Europe in 1945, we might possibly have some idea of who will occupy Number 10 Downing Street for the next five years.
Equally of course, we may well not know who will occupy No 10 and our worst fears that some kind of constitutional crisis might be something we have to face. I hope not but we could well end up with a similar situation to that which existed in 2010 and days if not weeks before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is placed in a position of asking someone to form a new government.
The prospect of a minority government and the possibility of requiring another General Election within months fills us with horror. On the other hand, while an overall majority for one of the two main political parties cannot yet be ruled out, at this stage such a position still looks relatively unlikely. “Events dear boy, event” meaning anything can and probably will change over the next few weeks as banana skins aplenty are found and slipped on. And mood can change too – with Labour well ahead in the polls as we headed into the 1964 election I well remember how the ‘unelectable’ Alec Douglas Home came back from being a Tory Party also ran to all but winning a majority on polling day. This was of course the election that brought Harold Wilson into No 10 for the first time. The point though is that a coalition of sorts looks a far more likely outcome in this election but who with whom is almost impossible to answer.
I will for now leave the electoral speculation at that except to say that like most of you the sooner it is all over the better. How much better would it be if the General Election this time could be fought out on real issues and rather than being led and manipulated by press and media that it could be led by the reporting of what has occurred as opposed to the left wing bias of certain elements of the media!
Sadly I am also left to believe that whoever is charged with occupying No 10 and whatever administration he might lead will be bad for UK defence. Knowing all too well as I do that if Labour has any notion of being elected to Government defence will be pushed even further down the agenda fills me not only with great fear but also anger. So Defence cannot be allowed to be an issue that we allow Labour to avoid at the polls.
And knowing also that the Tories are equally desperate to keep defence off the election agenda hardly instils confidence. In PMQ’s yesterday Mr. Cameron made reference to the dangers for defence of a Labour/SNP Coalition but time and time again he prefers to close his eyes to the devastation his own administration has wreaked on UK defence. It is just no use saying repeatedly that we spend the second largest amount on defence of any NATO country if you fail to understand that the reason for this. We have a duty not only to our people to ensure that we have adequate defence but also to play a huge role in international defence diplomacy. Our role in NATO is large and it one that has real meaning and purpose. We may have some of the best defence capability available but we lack resilience, scale and capacity to be able to do all that may be asked of us. The point is that we have worked hard to put Defence on the election agenda and we must all now work even harder to keep it there.
I am as I hope most of you know by now a positive thinker but when it comes to management by our political leaders of defence and indeed, of security and foreign policy as well, I can say that throughout my long career supporting defence, supporting the UK military, supporting the defence industry and defence exports I have never been more fearful about our attitude and the likely future outcome for defence than I am now. Must we wait until the enemy is at the door before we get the message? Must we forget how we made the same mistakes eighty year ago? Have we lost purpose and do we not understand that the threats against us today are very much larger than they have been for the past twenty-five years? Have we lost our ability to understand what threatens us?
This past week the House of Commons Defence Select Committee warned again that failing to meet the 2% GDP target for defence spending would not only be extremely damaging to Britain’s military credibility but also that further cuts would undermine the whole NATO alliance. The HCDC went even further claiming that there are now so many global security threats that British forces could find themselves required to operate in a dozen wars simultaneously. That may be just a little over the top and in any case we know well enough that we are now so capacity constrained in defence that we could not engage in more than one conflict without seriously weakening our other commitments in defence. The HCDC also called, echoing those from myself, former military and defence chiefs and former military men, MP’s and members of the House of Lords for Britain to rebuild defence capabilities abandoned after the ‘end’ of the Cold War in response to new threats.
Also this week I note that US Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt with a 5,000 compliment of sailors and airmen and maybe as many as 90 aircraft on board both above and below deck has been here in UK waters moored off Portsmouth on a goodwill visit. Rather too big at 102,000 tons displacement to be able to dock within Portsmouth, USS Theodore Roosevelt is very welcome here and it is great to see such a powerful vessel in our waters. Having myself had the great pleasure and opportunity of doing a full carrier landing, by courtesy of a US Navy Northrop Grumman C-2 Greyhound, onto sister ship, the USS George H W Bush back in 2011 and seen for myself the formidable range of power and capability that these nuclear powered vessels have in abundance plus also the ‘deterrent’ factor that a ship such as this presents to a would-be aggressor I do wonder what it is that we, a still powerful nation and the sixth largest economy in the world, have failed to understand that the lessons of history are supposed to have taught us.
Soon, after a gap that will essentially have been ten years by the time the new capability is mature, we will have our own new Queen Elizabeth class carriers but fantastic as these will be they will carry but a fraction of the firepower and overall capability carried by the US carriers.
Each US Navy Nimitz class aircraft carrier has fast jet capability that is equal to one half of the whole of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy fast jet capability planned within Future Force 2020. I am not suggesting for a moment that we can or should maintain a pro-rata basis of air power capability to that maintained by the US but seeing the actuality of this emphasises just how far we have come down in overall capability terms. For the record and not including additional US Marines air power capability, the US Navy has approximately 3,700 operational aircraft and the US Air Force around 5,638 aircraft. The US currently has eleven aircraft carriers of which nine are Nimitz class – the first, USS Nimitz being commissioned in 1975 and the last, USS George HW Bush, in 2009.
There will be one further defence piece from me during next week I suspect before I take a week long break over Easter. Today we have had what I assume will be the final reports to be issued from the current House of Commons Defence Select Committee, this time calling for better intelligence and more strategic input for UK defence. Well said and well do I remember that it was this same committee under the then chair James Arbuthnot that concluded in a past paper that ‘we can find little strategy in the SDSR 2010.
I should also say that I very much welcome the announcement from the Government of the intention to modernise and boost our Falkland Island military capability. The £180m that will be spent improving missile defences and radar over the next ten years is long overdue and two Chinooks will provide a boost to confidence. But where was the additional Royal Navy and Royal Marine capability and why no additional Army presence? I have yet to visit the Falkland Island and would love to so do if for no other reason than to judge for myself whether we have sufficient capability to meet the constant threat that is posed. Right now it is right that I should have an open mind on the subject and while I do know that we are perhaps better prepared than we were back in 1982 should we need to really strengthen our capability presence our distinct lack of suitable maritime capability is extremely worrying
Another election related thought crosses my mind here and it is one that says what a pity that Labour leader Ed Miliband failed to ask the Prime Minister in the House of Commons during PMQ’s yesterday whether he would now be prepared to commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence through the whole of the next parliament and beyond if he won the forthcoming election? Indeed, what a superb opportunity was lost by the Prime Minister himself in nit asking his opponent yesterday whether, as Labour leader and should he find himself in Downing Street in a couple of months, he might do the same?
With the final defence related announcements from the current Coalition Government out of the way now I suspect that both main political parties will strive to do their very best to keep defence off the election agenda. We MUST all work very hard to ensure the opposite is the case. We must also defend the need to replace Trident whenever the matter is used as an excuse for political parties to hide behind.
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