"We are agreed that the first duty of government is to safeguard our national security and support our troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere – and we will fulfil that duty." - David Cameron and Nick Clegg in their foreword to the Coaltion's programme for government.
This applies across government, even to the Treasury. It's necessary to remind ourselves of that, because of the way that the Strategic Defence and Security Review has been made subject to the Treasury's timetable this summer; it hasn't been allowed the time to be properly consultative or strategic. This is even more vital than would be usual given the utterly toxic nature of Labour's legacy in Defence.
One of the gravest charges made against Gordon Brown by the Conservatives was that as Chancellor he did not like the armed forces and saw no reason to make an effort to understand them, that on his watch the Treasury let down our armed forces in a time of wars. Combine that with Labour's failure to hold a full strategic defence review after 1998,whilst at the same time splurging on long-term contracts so that there are now unfunded defence liabilities of about £37 billion over the next ten years, and you get some measure of the mess the coalition has been left with. Clearing this up was bound to be hazardous.
To his credit, Goerge Osborne seemed to understand that in opposition and visted Afghanistan before the election. However it's far from clear that those good intentions have altogther successfully been carried into government.
It was to be expected that the review would pitch Army against Navy against Air Force, with defence contractors and backbench MPs of all parties joining in, and that the politics at that level would be hard-fought. However, with the extraordinary pressures that the coalition faces, it was vital that ministers stick together. That hasn't happened. Instead there have been briefings and black ops, some of them snidely personal. Personal calculation and animosity, rather than strategic consideration, seems to have been the order of the day, a recent example being last weekend's Sunday Times reporting that "Osborne's emmissaries" to the Liberal Democrat conference were briefing journalists against the Secretary of State for Defence. That's a dismaying return to Brownite tactics.
Liam Fox was entirely right to write as he did, and is justifiably appalled at the leak. It's ludicrous to say that this should not have been committed to paper: there's something badly wrong somewhere if the Secretary of State for Defence cannot write in confidence to the Prime Minister without it being leaked.
There are things the coalition can do to build public confidence in this process:
- Extend the time allowed for the SDSR, allowing a contingency in the Comprehensive Spending Review if necessary
- Set out, for public discussion, its vision of Britain's future global role and strategic interests, together with an analysis of the medium-term threats to our security (to the extent these are publishable)
- Use the expertise of Parliament: the Defence Select Committee should hold public hearings; there should be a full day's debate in both Houses, attended in the Commons by the PM, DPM, and Chancellor as well as the Secretary of State
- Ministers in all departments should demonstrate that they are approaching this in a collegiate spirit, with a shared recognition that their first duty is our security.