Conservative Diary


26 Feb 2013 06:48:58

Tory Cabinet ministers and Lib Dems have one message for Osborne: Cut the ring fences

By Tim Montgomerie
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ImagesGeorge Osborne is getting a very similar message from his Conservative and Liberal Democrat colleagues: Lift the ringfences.

Liberal Democrats are telling the Chancellor that they won't accept further cuts to welfare if he isn't willing to cut richer pensioners' benefits and, potentially, also "gently trim" the budgets for the NHS, schools and aid. Unlike the Tories, the Lib Dems' 2010 manifesto did not promise to ringfence key Whitehall budgets or the perks paid to better off pensioners.

And from his Right, Tory Cabinet colleagues are also saying that the next round of spending cuts will only be acceptable if the whole of Whitehall shares in the pain. Cabinet ministers like Theresa May feel that she's already achieved the near impossible. She has cut the budgets of the police for the first time ever and without a breakdown in law and order. On the contrary, crime has actually fallen by 10%. Eric Pickles is equally proud of the cuts he has made. Cuts to local government have been frontloaded but there hasn't been a meltdown for Tory councillors at the ballot box. Public opinion polls suggest that voters are seeing through Labour attempts to 'shroud wave' while, for example, maintaining reserves.

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18 Feb 2013 08:28:14

Dominic Raab asks this year’s £3.6 billion question: when are the troops coming home?

By Peter Hoskin
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Afghanistan is on the agenda as David Cameron sweeps into Mumbai. The Indian Government is, apparently (£), concerned at our PM’s efforts to involve Pakistan in the maintenance of the Afghan state after Western troops have departed. They fear losing whatever influence they currently have in Kabul.

But questions about Afghanistan are also waiting for Mr Cameron back home, in Britain – and they’re questions which, I suspect, will take on ever greater significance as the year progresses.

One of these questions is implicit within Dominic Raab’s article for the Financial Times (£) this morning. Mr Raab recommends a swathe of further cuts to bolster the economy and public finances, but there’s one that stands out above all the rest. “Beyond Whitehall,” he writes, “bringing all UK troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2013 (instead of 2014) would save £3.6bn.”

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22 Jan 2013 08:19:27

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:

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”.

13 Jan 2013 08:58:22

David Cameron’s intervention in Mali has shades of Libya and Afghanistan

By Peter Hoskin
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It didn’t take long for David Cameron to offer British assistance to the French forces in Mali. Only 24 hours after Operation Serval had been initiated, to combat the Islamist militants who are spreading out from the north of the African country, Mr Cameron was on the phone to President Hollande to see what we might do. The outcome was announced last night: two RAF transport planes will be dispatched to provide logistical support.

Admittedly, this is a limited intervention, so far. But it already has parallels with recent operations in Libya and Afghanistan. Libya because this is another swift, targeted response to a situation that — with thousands of people fleeing the north of Mali in the wake of reported atrocities — has definite humanitarian dimensions. Afghanistan because the main emphasis of Mr Cameron’s statement yesterday was on preventing the spread of terrorism. Or, as he put it:

I am deeply concerned about the recent rebel advances in Mali, which extend the reach of terrorist groups and threaten the stability of the country and the wider region.”

I’m sure this concern is Mr Cameron’s overriding reason for getting involved in the Mali conflict: like all Prime Ministers, he does not take military decisions lightly. But it’s also hard to ignore the possible political ramifications of all this. The PM’s relationship with François Hollande is generally even tetchier than that he had with Nicolas Sarkozy, and yet he may soon require Mr Hollande’s help to secure a new relationship between Britain and the EU, particularly given the recent noises emanating from Berlin. His willingness to assist the French in Mali may have diplomatic benefits.

And as for whether that British assistance will be stepped up, perhaps even to the point where we have a combat role, much could depend on what progress the French make by themselves, and whether the US gets involved too. The White House is currently said to be mulling over a French request for support in the shape of military drones. This could escalate yet.

P.S. My former colleagues at the Spectator’s Coffee House have put together a useful briefing on Mali here.

19 Dec 2012 11:41:58

David Cameron decides on a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan

By Peter Hoskin
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Beyond the Andrew Mitchell row, there’s another significant political story in the newspapers today — and it’s exactly as the headline to this post suggests. The Government is set to announce that up to 4,000 troops could return home from Afghanistan next year. That would leave 5,000 remaining into 2014 and the planned “end of combat operations”.

No doubt the decision has waited until now because of the US election. The battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cast America’s Afghan policy into some doubt: Mr Obama wanted to get out in 2014, whereas Mr Romney… well, he wasn’t exactly clear, but he did at least raise the possibility of staying in longer. Now that Mr Obama has his four more years, David Cameron knows how British policy will align with America’s. Indeed, the two men spoke about that very subject, yesterday.

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8 Dec 2012 08:56:09

Autumn Statement means less funding for Defence - and potential Budget rebellions from Tory MPs

By Matthew Barrett
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In the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, it was announced that government departments would have to cut their budgets by 1% in 2013-14 and 2% in 2014-15. The Defence budget, with its already-fragile spending and severe cuts on the way, would appear to be particularly badly hit.

The MoD insists that the cuts later in this parliament will be covered by its reserve funds, which the Treasury has unusually agreed to let the MoD use for that purpose. However, the reserve funds cannot cover a new hole in Defence funding of £490m every year between 2015 and 2020, which the Autumn Statement creates.

Hammond Nov 2012The Financial Times (£) this morning reports that the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, will have to have difficult talks with the Treasury - the planned modernisations as part of "Future Force 2020" require a minimum budget which the £490m annual cut would jeopardise.

The MoD and Army leadership believe the Army has suffered too much already. The size of the regular (rather than including reservists) Army will, in 2020, be at its lowest point since 1800. Instead, the FT suggests spending reductions could be focused elsewhere - perhaps on a cheaper nuclear deterrent than Trident.

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13 Oct 2012 09:04:00

Will George Osborne stamp his influence across Britain's Afghan policy?

By Peter Hoskin
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It’s Osborne-a-rama in the newspapers this morning. When the Chancellor isn’t outlining the “triple threats” that face the global economy, he’s blaming Germany for the death of the proposed BAE-EADS merger. When he isn’t writing letters to Andrew Tyrie about banking reform, he’s urging energy companies to rethink their price rises. And there’s more: the Financial Times even contains a hatful of articles about Mr Osborne’s “shares for rights” policy.

But the most significant Osborne-related story in today’s papers is surely this in the Daily Telegraph. Apparently, at a recent National Security Council meeting, he asked defence chiefs why British troops couldn’t just come home from Afghanistan now. The report quotes sources who suggest that this was merely a “provocation” on the Chancellor’s part — and that he agrees with the government’s current plan for withdrawal — but it’s striking nonetheless. Mr Osborne had previously pushed for more troops than the agreed-upon 500 to be taken out of the country this year. He certainly appears to be agitating for a faster pace to proceedings.

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3 Oct 2012 16:42:10

Give NI tax breaks to employers of TA volunteers — and other morale-boosters for reservists

By Matthew Barrett
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Last week, the Duke of Westminster retired from his position as Deputy Commander Army Reserves. The Duke had previously served as the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff with responsibility for Reserves and Cadets, and had served in the Territorial Army for many years and several wars - first enlisting as a Trooper in 1970, before going to Sandhurst and working his way up to being a two star Major-General (and the TA's first two star Major-General). In his words, "I have been serving for nearly half of the entire life of the Territorial Army – and if there is anybody who knows how it ticks, it has got to be me."

It is alarming therefore, to learn that the Ministry of Defence was so dismissive of his advice on how to help cure a quiet but distressing injustice being done to Reservists. The Duke complained about the fact that British companies routinely discriminate against potential employees who are serving in the TA:

"There is undoubtedly positive discrimination against someone who at interview says he is in the Territorial Army... These days when you have to tick the boxes on the interview sheet, one of the questions is ‘Are you in the Territorial Army’. [But] we are not allowed by legislation to say: ‘Are you pregnant? Are you about to be pregnant? Are you black? Are you white? Are you Muslim?’ That we have got to get over."

It's a cultural problem, the Duke suspects: "Our overseas employers are better than the English employers – I am talking about French, Japanese, Americans and others. All those countries had national service or its equivalent right up to two or three years ago, so there is a service culture built in." Employers are unwilling to take on new staff who are likely to go off on months-long tours of Afghanistan. The Duke's suggestion to encourage British firms to take on more TA staff was to offer tax breaks to firms through a "National Insurance surcharge relief".

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23 Aug 2012 08:31:21

Cameron and Obama inch closer to intervention in Syria

By Matthew Barrett
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Cameron & Obama

David Cameron has endorsed a warning by President Obama that the threat of chemical weapons being used in Syria would cause them to "revisit their approach so far", the Guardian reports today.

On Monday, Mr Obama said:

"We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We've been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised."

The Guardian also notes the conversation between Cameron and President Hollande, in which a Downing Street spokesman said...

"The Prime Minister said that he and President Hollande were 100 per cent in agreement as they discussed political, humanitarian and military issues affecting the country and the wider region. They discussed how to build on the non-lethal support recently announced by the UK and agreed that France and the UK would work more closely to identify how they could bolster the opposition and help a potential transitional Syrian government after the inevitable fall of Assad."

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15 Jul 2012 16:34:13

Philip Hammond says troops were "always intended" to be part of the Olympic security operation

By Matthew Barrett
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HAMMOND PHILIPThe Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, appeared on Sky News earlier today. When asked about the Olympic security situation, he said the 3,500 troops apparently deployed to make up for a gap in security contractors' capabilities were part of an armed forces "contribution" which was always intended to exist:

"There was always intended to be a significant armed forces contribution to the security operation around the Olympics. What’s happened over the last few days is we’ve made a decision to bring some of what was being held as a contingency... and deploy it to support G4S, work alongside G4S recognising that the company has now said that they think it unlikely they can guarantee the full numbers of venue security guards they were contracted to deliver."

The Secretary of State denied that the deployment was in response to an increased threat:

"This is not a response to any sense of an increased threat, it is simply recognising that G4S has had difficulties with the scheduling and mobilisation of its workforce and that it is better to err on the side of caution, deploy and additional 3,500 troops and then we can be sure that we will have sufficient manpower in place to do the venue guarding task whether or not G4S solve those problems or do not solve them over the next few days."

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