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Liam Fox: Brown still in denial over defence black hole

I would like to thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it, although we do seem to have been the last to see the Green Paper since every journalist I have met this week has been telling me about its contents.

I think the Secretary of State deserves genuine praise for his attempts to find a cross party consensus. When the history of this dreadful government is written, his will be one of the more honourable mentions. I would also like to thank my Honourable Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex for the effort he has put into producing a balanced and open-minded Green Paper and I know that his experience in the MoD was appreciated in the process.

This Green Paper indicates that the MoD is coming out of denial but the Prime Minister is not. We are used to the Prime Minister briefing against his perceived enemies in the corridors of Westminster but not normally undermining a Secretary of State on the front page of The Times. How far away from the number 10 briefing this week is paragraph 9 on page 9 of the Green Paper which says ‘we cannot proceed with all the programmes we currently aspire to. We will need to make tough decisions.

Of course this week we have seen the truth of the Prime Minister's approach to defence. The former Defence Secretary, the Right Honourable Member for Ashfield, said that there was ‘quite a strong feeling that the defence review was not fully funded.’

The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Walker, told us that the defence chiefs threatened to resign as a result of the savage cuts which the then Chancellor tried to apply to defence in the middle of two wars.

And today the former permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit talked about having to operate a ‘permanent crisis budget.’

The Defence Secretary introduced defence cut backs in December but the Prime Minister has talked about Defence increases this week.

In his statement the Secretary of State said ‘there has been a great deal of interest and speculation about whether any major capabilities will be confirmed in the Green Paper’.

But we all know why: it is because No 10 have been briefing all week that any project that has job implications for the Prime Minister’s constituency will be spared. That is taking a core strategy way too far.

There are some things on which we are clearly agreed.

We know from bitter historical experience the difficulty of predicting future conflict- either its nature or its location. We cannot base our future security on the assumption that future wars will be like the current ones. That is why we must maintain generic capability, able to adapt to any changing threats.

There is no doubt that in Afghanistan we have been too slow to give the army, in particular, the agility and flexibility it needs to maximise its effectiveness.

But we must also remember that we are a maritime nation dependent on the sea lanes for 92% of our trade. A time when the threat of disruption is increasing is no time for Britain to become sea blind.

We also agree that France and the United States are likely to be our main strategic partners. For us there are two tests: do they invest in defence? And do they fight?  Sadly too few European allies pass both these tests.

The Secretary of State talked about a 10% increase in the defence budget in real terms. He also talks about the higher level of defence inflation. Can he tell us how much of the increase in the defence budget has gone into pay, pensions and allowances? And what proportion of that increase has been made available for equipment and other programmes over the period he outlined?

Can he confirm that the department’s budget for next year will be 36.89 billion pounds as previously set out?  He says ‘not a penny will be cut for next year’s budget.’ What cuts does the Government envisage after that?

Unlike the Opposition and the House of Commons, he has access to all the costs of the contracts and penalty clauses for the major programmes. Why will the Government not give honest answers about the implications of the cost overruns in the years ahead?

We know that there has been serial mismanagement at the MoD, with the equipment programme somewhere between 6 and 35 billion pounds above what can be afforded. How will it be reconciled?

After twelve years on indecision, we finally get a Green Paper weeks before an election. And despite all the good words in this Green Paper today, the future defence budget will have to be conducted against the backdrop of Government debt of 799 billion pounds. That is the equivalent of borrowing 1.1 million pounds every day since the birth of Christ.

That our nation’s security should be compromised by Labour’s historic economic incompetence is truly a national tragedy.

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