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Missing the point

Posted by Richard Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another sad and dismal tale, over on Defence of the Realm. This is about the background to the Nimrod story, covered in The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere. As so often, at the heart of the problem is yet another procurement cock-up for which the MoD is famous.

So far though, the MoD seems to have got away with it, the real cause of the disaster having almost completely escaped parliamentary and media scrutiny. That the media have lost the plot does not surprise me at all. Putting together the post over at DOTR had taken me the equivalent of two day's work, all for one post that will soon be buried and forgotten. In media terms, a "story" is not worth that investment in time - it is no longer economic to have journalists do their homework.

The lack of background, however, enables opposition politicians to accuse ministers of "complacency and penny-pinching". We also have the courageous Liam Fox, Conservative shadow defence secretary leaping into the breach, declaring that: "It beggars belief that even after 18 months, the MoD and its contractors have failed to modify these aircraft which are undertaking critical surveillance operations in Afghanistan."

This sounds like good, old-fashioned, knock-about party politics. But it is entirely misplaced. The root of the problem stems from decisions made in the 1990s, initiated by the last Conservative government. And, far from "penny pinching", the poor decision-making has cost us a fortune, leaving us without a vital capability.

That point was not lost on Bruce George MP, Chairman of the Defence Committee, 1979-2005. In June 2008, he was commenting on procurement failures, noting that the procurement projects often took so long that they spanned several governments. In many instances, no one government can be blamed – several have had a finger in the pie.

This is the case here, where the original poor decisions by the Conservatives were compounded by the failures of the Labour government. No one comes out of this with clean hands.

Bruce George also makes the point that, "Every single war in which our armed forces have engaged was either just about won, or even lost, not just because of poor leadership but because of poor procurement." That he is a Labour politician is neither here nor there, as he notes that this is an issue which has plagued governments for centuries, and other countries make equally big messes, irrespective of their colour or ideology.

This needs to be recognised. We need an approach different from the Punch and Judy politics of the type exhibited by Liam Fox. What we need is clinical, forensic opposition, with a constructive approach aimed at improving the system. Knock-about point-scoring is not acceptable when lives are at stake.

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