David Cameron’s running battle with military chiefs
By Peter Hoskin
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Of all the headlines about David Cameron’s decision to intervene—and intervene more forcefully—in North Africa, there’s one that stands out: “Top brass resist PM’s Mali war”. And it stands out because of its familiarity. It now seems that almost every time Mr Cameron turns his attention to defence policy the top brass, or “defence chiefs”, or military chiefs”, are there to resist him. For instance:
- Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2010: Military chiefs accuse coalition of rushing defence review
- The Guardian, 25th February 2011: Military chiefs urge David Cameron to rethink cuts
- Daily Telegraph, 11th May 2011: David Cameron has triggered a row with military chiefs by insisting that hundreds of British troops must be withdrawn from Afghanistan within weeks
- Evening Standard, 18th May 2011: Military chiefs call on Prime Minister to scrap increase on foreign aid
- Daily Telegraph, 23rd June 2011: Military chiefs' clash with politicians over Libya and Afghanistan
- Daily Mirror, 17th February 2012: David Cameron dismays defence chiefs by agreeing project to build drones
- The Sun, 12th November 2012: Top brass reject David Cameron’s plan to send troops to Syria
- Daily Express, 7 January 2013: Defence chiefs slam military cuts
I could go on, but you get the point.
Despite all that, a Downing Street source says that the relationship between the Government and the military command isn’t a total slanging match, but more often a case of “raised eyebrows and curt handshakes”. Yet there’s still no denying that it boils over into anger, on occasion. Even Mr Cameron has admitted as much. His barbed quip that “you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking” was a sign of the frustration he sometimes feels.
To some extent, it was ever going to be thus. We can always expect military chiefs to defend their own patch, and particularly from incursions by the Treasury’s bean-counters. News of today’s cuts—with 5,000 soldiers set to be axed—will not ease their concerns about military overstretch.
Although it’s not just the cuts in themselves, but also the way they are being implemented. In his statement yesterday, Mr Cameron cited the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010, saying that it prioritised those assets required for the battlegrounds of the future, such as special forces, cyber-security and drones. But the military chiefs have their doubts. That review was always, as I’ve said before, a document shaped by compromise. It’s stuck between the competing demands of conventional warfare, counter-terrorism and cuts.
So, what should be done? It might be too much, politically as well as fiscally, to have another review — but it oughtn’t be too much for the Coalition to consider it. If Britain is going to be striking at Africa for years to come, then we should ask questions of “how”, almost as much as questions of “why”.