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Soames: Action on defence and security

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2004

"May I first introduce my excellent Defence Team; Keith Simpson, Gerald Howarth, Andrew Robathan and I want to acknowledge special help from the great Dr Julian Lewis and Patrick Mercer.

On Sunday, 6th June this year Michael Howard and I had the honour to be present when the Sovereign took the salute at the march past of her Normandy Veterans in the town square at Arromanches.

No-one who saw it will ever forget the rank upon rank of veterans parading before their Queen, to give due honour to worthy pride and still, in many cases, unforgettable sadness at the loss of their comrades who fell on D Day and beyond, during the greatest feat of combined operations ever undertaken.

All of us will have reflected then at the supreme gallantry and astonishing endurance of the D Day Veterans in circumstances which are today almost beyond the call of modern imagination.

For it is today the successors of that wartime generation, in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force who are grappling with the dangerous and highly volatile circumstances of counter insurgency operations in Iraq, where 68 British servicemen have given their lives:

who are deployed in Afghanistan; in Bosnia; in Kosovo; in Cyprus; in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and whose professionalism, courage and fortitude we salute, and to whose families of whom these days to much is being asked and who keep the home fires burning, this conference sends our warmest good wishes.

In Southern Iraq this afternoon throughout the British area of responsibility supported by the pilots and groundcrew of the Royal Air Force, the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment and its Battle Group in Al Amarah, who have greatly distinguished themselves in a very tough and demanding deployment; the Battle Groups of the Cheshire Regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the Black Watch together with squadrons of the Household Cavalry and Queen's Royal Lancers supported by the Sappers, the REME, the logisticians and of course very importantly our intelligence people, together with their absolutely indispensable and highly professional comrades in the Territorial Army, are doing wonders for the name and fame of Britain, and are every day proving what a magnificent asset for this country are the Armed Forces of the Crown.

The modern British serviceman and woman, like their forebears, have a reputation for excellence that is unrivalled throughout the world.

And I want this afternoon to give you an absolute assurance; under the next Conservative Government they will no longer be taken for granted as they are today by an ungrateful and shamefully ignorant Labour Government.

For the Armed Forces have never let Britain down. In the last few years, quite apart from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have quite literally saved Sierra Leone from certain self-destruction: they helped to secure peace and good order in East Timor: and they brought freedom to Kosovo.

At home they have bailed out the Government over its dismal failure and astonishing incompetence in dealing with the foot and mouth epidemic and the fire strikes.

And what has been the Government's big reward for all that they have most loyally and efficiently delivered?

It has been to axe manpower from the Army……. and ships, aircraft and men from the Navy and the Air Force.

It is to the eternal shame of a thoroughly complacent and pedestrian Secretary of State that he has been totally incapable of standing up for the Armed Forces and is simply too wet to take on our dysfunctional Chancellor in the Services' interests.

Both Geoff Hoon and the Ministry of Defence have been severely criticised by the Defence Select Committee, by the Public Accounts Committee and by the National Audit Office for persistently ignoring the lessons learnt of previous operations, and for unforgivably failing to address serious shortcomings in equipment, procurement and logistics.

In particular Hoon stands guilty of not ensuring that service personnel received the equipment that they needed on operations including in Iraq, desert boots and combat kit, flak jackets, and most shamefully given the threat adequate chemical and biological protection equipment and other critical items.

This was an abject failure on the part of Ministers and in Government we will never again permit it to happen. If troops do not get the equipment they need when they put their lives on the line, then Ministers, senior servicemen and officials will be held fully accountable.

Ladies and Gentlemen, on Hoon's watch each of the services has declined to a size lower than ever before.

The frontline fighting strength of the Royal Navy is now set to fall below that of the French fleet for the first time since the 17th century.

The Government plans to decommission 3 destroyers and 3 frigates, one of them only eight years old. They are also taking out of service all the Naval Sea Harriers thus denying our aircraft carriers essential protection.

He calls it rebalancing, we call it cuts.

On Hoon's watch 4 of our great infantry battalions are to be axed and the unique strength of our regimental system which has given so much in war and peace will be eroded. We will fight this every step of the way in Parliament and in the country because it is the wrong thing to do.

Hoon calls it restructuring, we call it cuts.

On Hoon's watch the RAF will lose all its remaining Jaguar squadrons, a squadron of air defence Tornados, and Nimrod aircraft.

He calls it modernisation, we call it cuts.

Indeed Ladies and Gentlemen, the latest round of defence cuts announced in July of this year are the seventh since this Government came to power. Five wars - seven rounds of cuts …….. what an abysmal record.

With all the operations that the Armed Forces are undertaking, with all the deployments required of them, they are today significantly undermanned, severely overstretched and under funded.

So when we take office we will put this right.

We will increase defence spending by £2.7 billion more on frontline services than Labour's planned expenditure over the next three years.

We will increase our resources to match our commitments, and we will streamline the whole business of defence and exploit to the full the potential of the new defence technologies.

For months it has been Labour's big lie that we will cut defence. After this announcement that lie can never be pedalled again.

Thanks to the work of the James Review on Public Expenditure, and to the support for our Armed Forces by Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin, we will be able to transfer savings from other departments into the defence budget as well as making major savings in the vast and inefficient bureaucracy of the Ministry of Defence.

As a result of this settlement we will retain the infantry regiments that Labour propose to do away with, thus ensuring that we will have enough boots on the ground to meet our demanding commitments.

We will restore the military training programme decimated by Labour but so vital for the safety and effectiveness of our servicemen.

We will review sustainability and put in place a modern and efficient system of logistics across the three Services.

The First Sea Lord has said, "No matter how good a ship is it can only be in so many places at any one time".

We agree with that.

We will therefore keep the three Type 23 frigates: Grafton, Marlborough and Norfolk, which are to be axed by Labour thus restoring essential capability at a time of heightened threat.

We will exploit and encourage our cutting edge defence expertise and research, and seek to develop a genuine and much more effective partnership with Britain's highly successful defence industry and thus improve the whole process of procurement.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in the great fog of uncertainty that marks the 21st century, unlike the Cold War, the threats to our country and to our interests overseas are not nearly so well defined.

The architects of these new threats seek no armistice: they have no territory to defend, no population to answer to and a very large pool in which to fish.

You may be absolutely assured that an incoming Conservative Government will pay the premium on the most important insurance policy that our country can have - the policy which enables us to deter or defeat those who wish to do us harm.

Our Armed Forces, by their everyday excellence, by their bravery on operations, by their steadiness in the most difficult and hostile circumstances, by their determination and above all by their humanity, have proved again and again how irreplaceable and how important they are in our national life and for our international interests.

Thus, Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen it will be for us an article of faith that when we come to power again, as surely we will, we will reaffirm by our actions that our Party regards the defence of the realm as the first duty of Government and that we will do right by our superb Armed Forces."

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