defence

Kiran Stacey

We reported this morning that Tory MPs are trying to make sure that the MoD doesn’t suffer further cuts at this year’s spending review. Mark Pritchard, a Tory backbencher, summed up the feeling of many of his colleagues when he told us:

Colleagues have, to date, reluctantly backed reductions in the MoD budget. However, any additional cuts to the defence, beyond those already agreed, will create a substantial political backlash. In short, the MoD budget has been cut enough, and the Treasury needs to look elsewhere for savings.

Pritchard and his colleagues should be on safe ground: the prime minister himself said that the defence settlement signed in 2010 would require “year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015”. Read more >>

Jim Pickard

Liam Fox this morning sought to kill off an uncomfortable story by asking his permanent secretary to investigate whether he has breached the ministerial code over his dealings with his friend Adam Werrity.

The defence secretary is under pressure over the fact that Mr Werrity – best man at his wedding – was handing out cards calling himself “adviser” to Mr Fox, arranging meetings and attending sensitive events. Read more >>

Kiran Stacey

This afternoon’s defence select committee on the strategic defence and security review began on a sour note.

Like an errant schoolboy, or rather the best friend of an errant schoolboy, armed forces minister Nick Harvey was forced by James Arbuthnot, the committee chair, to explain why it was he and not his boss in the hot seat. Read more >>

Jim Pickard

Liam Fox’s concerns about setting legal targets for increasing overseas aid spending – which were aired in a leaked letter yesterday – are widely shared on the Conservative benches. Many MPs believe the plan is unaffordable at a time of public spending cuts. And plenty are happy to speak out about their concerns.

Philip Davies, an executive member of the backbench 1922 committee, challenged David Cameron on the issue last week. Davies told us: Read more >>

Without plunging in the dagger to its hilt, Vince Cable made clear this morning that Prince Andrew should be carefully reflecting on whether to carry on as a UK trade envoy.

“He is a volunteer, he has offered to perform these roles. I think it’s down to him, essentially, to judge the position he wants to be in.” Read more >>

The Ministry of Defence is always strapped for cash but never short of intrigue.

Remember the urgent police inquiry that Liam Fox launched after a mole gave the Daily Telegraph his letter warning David Cameron about “draconian” cuts? Read more >>

David Cameron’s opposition to the release of the Lockerbie bomber is plain. But he has a more nuanced position on Tony Blair’s deal to bring Gaddafi in from the cold.

Cameron is privately rather relieved he was spared having to take the decision. From his public statements, it seems he backs the principle behind the pact. But in hindsight he thinks Blair gave a bit too much away. Read more >>

Britain’s defence industry has no better friend than David Cameron, at least when it comes to exports.

Given the dramatic turn of events in the Middle East, the prime minister has certainly not opted for the path of least resistance.

We’re still at the beginning of this trip (as I write this I’m sitting in the Kuwaiti parliament). But it is already absolutely clear that he really does believe in commercial diplomacy – and that means promoting defence sales, come rain or shine. Read more >>

There is a clear, unremitting pattern to David Cameron’s announcements on Afghanistan: they all point to the exit. Today he repeated that troops could begin returning in 2011 — contradicting a warning from the new head of the armed forces last month. As one senior military figure told me recently, Cameron “is not making our job easier”.

General Sir David Richards, the chief of defence staff, is travelling with the prime minister in Helmand and certainly gave a much warmer response to the idea of an “accelerated withdrawal” when asked this time round. But there will still be a lively discussion over the pace of the draw down and what, if anything, would slow it down. Read more >>

Does the defence review add up? The head of the RAF has today given us an important insight into the maths. He has made public that David Cameron’s vision for the armed forces in 2020 is only affordable if you assume the MoD budget rises every year after 2015 by around 2 per cent above inflation.

For those of you who don’t think it sounds much, a five-year military settlement as generous as that was last granted in the early 1980s.

Is the rise a realistic basis for planning? A prudent approach? Should we really count on a military spending boom after 2015?

This review was, after all, supposed to balance the MoD books. Yet it looks like we’re back to buying kit on the never-never. Officials tell me the cumulative unfunded liability — if you take the usual planning assumption of the budget rising in line with inflation after 2015 — stands at £13bn to £15bn over the coming decade.

Coalition aides say this is completely different from the “black hole” they say they inherited from Labour. It all comes down to this statement given by the prime minister in the Commons:

“My own strong view is that this structure will require year on year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015.”

On the basis of this “strong view”, Liam Fox’s team think it is realistic and reasonable to at least plan on the basis of real terms increases to cover their spending commitments. Defence chiefs also welcomed Cameron’s “strong view” of the future — but they are still pushing for a more “bankable” pledge. They want George Osborne to guarantee an annual uplift beyond 2015, a request that some Treasury officials will treat as light comedy. I don’t think such a guarantee has ever been given to a department. Read more >>

Getty

The Whitehall battlelines over Afghanistan are coming into focus. General Sir David Richards this morning made absolutely clear he is a commander who is unwilling to be hurried out of Helmand, whatever the prime minister might think.

In his first major interview as chief of defence staff, he rules reducing troop numbers next year and says Britain will stay “as long as it takes”. His words to The Sun leave some room for manoeuvre. (Downing Street are insisting he is “of the same mind” as the prime minister.) But they certainly do not chime with David Cameron’s recent pronouncements. The differences in nuance are obvious.

They give a flavour of a behind-the-scenes debate that will grow in importance. Indeed differences camps almost mirror those in Washington, with Obama and Cameron pitted against the Two Davids (Petraeus and Richards) over the pace and timing of withdrawal.

There is one line in the Richards interview that underlines these emerging alliances. “As long as we continue to put faith in Dave Petraeus and hold our nerve, then I think we can do it,” he says. “It’s definitely winnable.”

This military faith in the mission contrasts markedly with the advice David Cameron is receiving from his spies. John Sawers, the head of MI6, is warning that Britain is overly focussed on a small part of Afghanistan while the threats to Britain are growing elsewhere.

It is worth comparing Richards’ words with those of Cameron.

 Read more >>

The spending review did not end in the way most people expected. When Cameron’s top team gathered around the Chequers table on Sunday to tuck in to roast lamb and Yorkshire puddings, there was virtually no talk of squeezing out extra savings to balance the books. They had money to spare.

This was not the impression given to the rest of the cabinet, or indeed the BBC. But the truth was that the Treasury was sitting on a small cash-pile. After agreeing all the big budgets, there was £1bn or more left in the emergency fund for the quad — Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander — to distribute.

“They went from the horsemen of the apocalypse to Father Christmas overnight,” said one official close to the final days of the spending negotiation.

This back of the sofa discovery is a feature of spending rounds. The Treasury always set cautious targets so there is some flexibility at the end. But how Cameron handled the mini windfall is revealing. It gives us an insight into both his priorities and the methods he used to bluff the BBC into paying for the World Service. Read more >>