Now if you thought the first half of Gordon Brown’s Iraq inquiry testimony was turgid, just wait for what is to come.
The charge facing Brown is that he slashed the helicopter budget in 2004. It is a toxic political issue that has a direct impact on Afghan operations today. It should be fascinating. But I fear what you’ll get is a deluge of arcane detail about “resource accounting”, something even senior Whitehall officials struggle to understand.
When confronted with this wall of accounting babble, it’s tempting to imagine that the politician must be wrong. But, in this case at least, blaming Brown alone a bit unfair. He has a reasonably strong defence.
His critics argue he brought down a “guillotine” on the defence budget after the row over accounting rules. This prompted cuts of £1bn or more from the helicopter budget.
His defence rests on two main points:
1) The Ministry of Defence misunderstood resource accounting
Under Brown the MoD were given permission to account for their budget on the basis of resources, not just cash. This meant including their considerable assets (rusting tanks, land etc).
After some accounting magic they thought they could spend about 9 per cent more than their cash limit in 2004. The trouble was that the Treasury thought they were barking. Even senior military officers admit to me that the MoD took a excessively rosy view of the books. The truth is that no pot of gold was created by changing the way the MoD drew up its accounts.
2) The defence chiefs — not Brown — chose to cut helicopters
Once the Treasury stopped the MoD from spending this magic money it required the department to make some hefty cuts. Now, the Treasury never stipulated what those were to be. It could have come from cutting ice breaker ships, cutting staff numbers, trimming perks, fast jets etc. It was for the defence chiefs to decide.
Well, when faced with this tough decision, all the chiefs chose to protect the budget for their own service. The compromise position was cutting a joint budget — the biggest of which happened to be for helicopters.
In other words, the defence chiefs decided that helicopters were one of the lowest priorities in the entire defence budget. They now have fewer of them to use in Afghanistan.
Here is what Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the defence staff, told the Iraq inquiry:
“My perception in Iraq was that, although any commander on the ground at any time is always going to be able to use more helicopters, that it was not a significant issue in our discussions with the Chiefs of Staff meetings, between 2003 and 2006.”