Saturday, January 13, 2007

The shadow minister responds

My latest piece on defence was forwarded by a reader to shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth, to which he responded with some alacrity. We publish this, in its entirety (barring one tiny edit), below:

Richard North (whose pamphlet on Galileo I launched at the House of Commons) has some good ideas but gives no credit to anything anyone else does and has little understanding of the - often extremely frustrating - political process, or of the power of the Opposition to get the media to focus on the issues we are tackling. Let me make a few observations which you are entirely free to circulate:

The Opposition has been doing precisely that - opposing. Not mindlessly, but intelligently where we believe the Government is wrong. You are probably not aware, but Liam Fox held a press conference on Tuesday which was extremely well-attended, including by George Jones of the Telegraph. However, very little coverage followed, the Telegraph running not a single column inch. At the press conference not only did Liam spell out forcefully in a series of PowerPoint displays the extent to which the Armed Forces have been betrayed by this Government, but when asked if he would increase defence resources if he were Secretary of State today, he replied emphatically 'yes', thus pre-empting the Prime Minister's remarks yesterday. He also said he saw no reason at all to close either of the South Coast dockyards, currently under threat from Labour. And he was honest enough to acknowledge that the last Conservative government's cuts in defence went too far, although of course not as far as Labour, let alone the Liberals, wanted at the time.

We are constantly pointing out that Brown has betrayed the Armed Forces by failing to fund the endless military operations undertaken at
Blair's behest and it was nauseating yesterday to see the Prime Minister promising increased defence spending when we know that every aspect of military activity is currently under threat and having to make cuts in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review now underway across government.

I could go on and on giving examples of what we have been doing, but let me give you just three specifics: I think I was the first to raise the issue of armoured vehicles which I did on my return from Iraq in September 2005. I told John Reid privately that he had to do something to get better protection for the troops facing roadside bombs (privately because I represent a garrison town and know how careless politicians can cause increased anxiety). He told me that they were aware of the problem and actively seeking solutions, but would not be specific. Since then, we have raised the matter repeatedly (see my website, which carries my views on the issue), as have many fellow MPs. As North suggests, the RG-31 (on which I was briefed at the Farnborough Air Show in July) is one of the most robust, but the Government has rejected this solution and gone for the US Cougar, known in the UK as the Mastiff, which I understand (I am not an expert in this field, nor I suspect is North) is similar in performance. In July the Government announced it would acquire 108 Mastiffs which would be 'fully operational' by the end of the year. It is we, the Opposition, who have established that this has not happened, only 4 being delivered into theatre. We told the press about this latest failure this week, and I gather The Sun carried the story prominently on page 2 yesterday, but it was downgraded in the final edition.

As far as the Pinzgauer is concerned, this (now) US-owned British company makes - in Guildford - an all-terrain troop carrier widely in service with the Army. I have indeed driven it at Long Valley in my constituency and it seems to me an excellent vehicle. However, it has no armour and therefore suffers from the same limitations as the Land Rover. In his July announcement the Defence Secretary also said they were ordering 'uparmoured' Pinzgauers, to be called Vector. This is a brand new vehicle but it does not pretend to have the armour of the Mastiff. It is my view that a range of armoured vehicles is required and that where the Government is guilty of betrayal is in failing to order off-the-shelf available heavily armoured equipment, such as the RG-31.

Secondly, there is the problem of troop air transport. The RAF is operating clapped-out 40 year old VC-10s and 35 year old Tristars half of which we have just established (through Parliamentary Questions, our principal means of trying to get information) are not fit for purpose. We have repeatedly raised the issue in Parliament and tried to get the press interested. In fact, The Telegraph did eventually run a story last week, so after 9 months of bashing away we obtained some coverage.

Thirdly, on procurement failures, it was we who were responsible for exposing the abject failure on the Landing Ships Docks project, praised by Blair yesterday, where the cost of the 4 ships has doubled thanks to appalling management by the MoD who awarded the principal contract to Swan Hunter. We ran a high profile campaign together with the Daily Telegraph. Last year, I asked the National Audit Office to investigate which they agreed to do and they will be reporting later in the spring.

The brutal truth is that we are not in power and not responsible for today's calamitous defence policy. Nor can we spell out today how much we will spend on coming to power in 2009 - 10, not least because we do not know what Labour will have bequeathed us in terms of commitments or the state of the public finances. All I can say is that the entire Tory Defence Team, led vigorously and determinedly by Liam Fox, are resolute that we shall not ask our magnificent soldiers, sailors and airmen to undertake tasks for which we are not prepared to give them the kit, the manpower and the training.

I know UKIP are trying to appeal to disaffected Tories, but they are not going to form the next Government. I hope that we are because I do believe that we understand the challenges which face our Armed forces and are incomparably best placed to meet them. On our benches we have MPs who have served recently (Andrew Robathan, formerly of the SAS, Hugh Robertson, Mike Penning, Tobias Elwood, Patrick Mercer (former CO of the Sherwood Foresters) and Adam Holloway, not to mention IDS. Others, like Desmond Swayne (PPS to David Cameron) and Mark Lancaster, who are TA officers, and Dr Andrew Murrison, former RN surgeon, have all served in Iraq and Afghanistan whilst being MPs. Lord Astor (who leads for us in the Lords) served for 4 years in the Life Guards, Julian Lewis MP (who leads on the Royal Navy and is the foremost exponent of the need for the nuclear deterrent) served for 3 years in the RNR, I was commissioned in the RAFVR and lead on the RAF, and of course Liam Fox spent 10 years as a civilian Medical Officer to the Army. Compare that record to the other parties!

We will not always get it right and must be subject to criticism if we get it wrong. However, I do ask that all those of goodwill will seek to encourage and support us. The most disastrous outcome would be for the UK to have inflicted on it a Labour Government led by a dour Scottish redistributive socialist who has consistently starved the Armed Forces of the resources they need to do the job and who until recently has distinguished himself by his complete lack of interest in our servicemen and women. That outcome will be assured unless people get behind the Tory party and rally to our flag.

Yours, Gerald
Gerald Howarth MP
Member of Parliament for Aldershot & Shadow Defence Minister

We have, as always, opened up a forum thread and tomorrow we will post our own response, building in the best of the comments posted.


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