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Jenkin: Defence commitments should be matched by capabilities

Speech to Conservative Spring Forum 2002

Recently I attended the Annual Dinner of the Armed Forces Parliamentary scheme - a scheme, which aims give MPs first hand experience of the armed forces. They put us in battle fatigues and take us out on exercise.

The Prime Minister graced the dinner with his imperial presence. Surprised to see me, he asked: 'What are you doing here?'

I said, "Prime Minister, I want to learn about the armed forces. Soon I'll know more than your Secretary of State."

The Prime Minister put me down with a quip. 'That's not difficult!'

Think about that! That is a measure of the Prime Minister's real confidence in the man responsible for the lives of our servicemen.

Under this Government, Britain is now committed to a series of open-ended deployments, putting further pressure on our already stretched armed forces. Mr Blair has been dotting them around the globe wherever it makes him feel good. We should not devalue the gold standard of our armed forces in this way.

Labour wants our Armed Forces to be a 'force for good', yet they have little understanding of what it takes to maintain the quality and readiness of the best armed forces in the world.

We should be making sure our commitments are matched by our capabilities - it is government's responsibility to square that circle. You only get what you pay for. Over-committing our forces not only tries the patience of the armed services and their families. It erodes their essential fighting capability.

And look what they are doing to the front line. Britain's defences are paying an increasingly intolerable price.

Incredibly, since British troops were first deployed to Afghanistan, Labour has announced a whole series of cuts.

· An entire Tornado air defence squadron - axed. The very same squadron put on standby after 11th September to defend the skies over London.

· The Royal Navy's ENTIRE force of Sea Harriers- axed. These are same Harriers played a key part in winning back the Falklands. Until a few days ago, they were due to remain in service until 2015. This leaves the Navy with no airborne air defence.

· The axe is falling on Royal Navy ships.

HMS Fearless - withdrawn a year early:

HMS Sheffield - mothballed:

HMS Monmouth - stuck in dock because there is no money for her maintenance programme.

The army is 7,500 men short - but there is a new Labour solution to that; simply reduce the target size of the Army, so we need fewer men to meet that target - and that's what they have done!

This week, the government announced that Britain is to send 1,700 Royal Marine Commandos to Afghanistan to fight in the war against terrorism. Let there be no doubt that we support the principle of this deployment. This is a very grave responsibility: our forces are the best - they deserve better leadership than this Labour Government.

Just look what Labour tried to do. They tried to make the announcement of the largest single deployment for combat operations since the Gulf War as though it was just routine.

Considering that this is arguably the most dangerous mission that our forces have taken on for 20 years, it is unbelievable that the Government should fail to offer Parliament the right to debate it fully.

That was not just a snub to Parliament, or even just a snub to the people Parliament represents. As Michael Portillo said during the debate:

'when our soldiers are being put into such extreme danger, it is a grave discourtesy to them to suggest that the sacrifice that they offer the nation is not worth three hours of debate in Government time' (Hansard 20 March 2002 Col 352)

4-5 Commando Royal Marines are undoubtedly some of the finest troops that anyone will find on this earth. They are trained in mountain warfare. They are ideally fitted to this task. And they know they must defeat our enemies—those who threaten our own people in our own country and the peoples of our friends and allies.

But it is not disloyal or unpatriotic for Parliament to require explanation. That is Parliament's job - but we had to drag Defence Ministers to the House of Commons to answer concerns expressed from all sides of the House. And the Prime Minister was too busy fighting his own backbenchers about foxhunting, to turn up to a debate about committing to troops to action.

This episode says everything about Mr Blair's real sense of priorities.

Iain Duncan Smith set his clear priority for defence last week. His paper, called A Race Against Time, explains how ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, and destabilising western security. He sets out why and how Britain must confront the growing missile threat. Few politicians in Europe understand the link between 11th September and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. This is why Britain should support the missile defence systems President Bush is offering Europe.

Instead of helping to galvanise other Governments in Europe to face up to the new threats and instabilities of the post cold war world, the Government's post 11th September consultation paper on defence does not even mention the word 'missile'! Labour continues to run scared from its CND MPs and activists.

This weekend Mr Hoon is in Spain at a meeting of EU defence ministers. What is his priority? He's gone back to the EU's defence agenda. Labour promised there was no such thing as a Euro Army. But this week the Spanish defence minister actually said:

'We have formed, we are forming that European Army.'

Having championed the EU Defence Policy, they have lost control of the agenda. Too late will they realise that this EU Army is already dividing Europe from America. The Euro Army is a dagger pointing at the heart of NATO.

This debate, and the other debates we are hearing this weekend, underline that Labour is no longer fit for government. But we Conservatives have no automatic right to govern. We have to earn that right. Moreover, it is not our right, but our duty to ensure that we are not just ready for government at the next election, but that the British people really feel they have choice about where to put their vote.

We are the Party of choice. Together we must offer that choice.

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