One of the last places in Britain you’d think of hosting next week’s Anglo-French summit is aboard the HMS Ark Royal, the Royal Navy flagship that was abruptly decommissioned in the defence review.
But, incredible as it sounds, someone in Downing Street thought this idea was worth investigating.
For a couple of weeks, officials in Paris and London were busily working on a plan to bring Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron together on the deck of a carrier.
Team Cameron thought it would provide a splendid backdrop that emphasised the strengthened Anglo-French military ties.
But finding the right spot proved tricky.
The most practical option was Ark Royal, which is based in Portsmouth. With impeccable timing, I’m told the Downing Street location scouts paid a visit within days of the Ark Royal crew being told the ship was to be scrapped. Cameron’s emissaries were, understandably, not given the warmest reception.
If this mini-blunder does highlight anything, it is the weakness of Cameron’s position.
It is impossible to judge the defence review without seeing the full budget breakdown, available only to government officials. But even with the information we now have, it is pretty clear that some assumptions are incoherent. Some plans just don’t add up. The most obvious issues are with the shape of the army after 2015.
There may be big troop cuts hidden in this review that Cameron just didn’t want to mention.
1) The mystery of Britain’s 29,000 surplus troops in 2020
At the moment Britain’s 110,000 strong land forces can sustain a deployment of around 10,000. By 2020 this enduring deployment will fall to brigade level, which amounts to around 6,500 men.
This is basically an admission that we will be unable to sustain as big a role in the next Afghanistan or Iraq.
But more curious is the fact that we’re not cutting the land forces by as much as we’re cutting the deployments we expect them to sustain.
The “force generation” ratio — the proportion of troops to boots on the ground — will actually deteriorate over the next decade according to the defence review, even though Liam Fox has ordered a separate review on how to improve it.
It is now received wisdom in Westminster that Liam Fox emerged victorious from his battle with the Treasury over defence funding.
The official history has David Cameron making a last minute intervention to boost defence spending, particularly for the army. The Treasury were only able to secure cuts of around 8 per cent in real terms, rather than the 10 per cent cuts they were pushing for.
The alternative interpretation is that Fox was short-changed and that this will become clear in the months ahead. The argument runs in two parts: