With a humiliating u-turn on the aircraft carrier programme completed, Philip Hammond took the brave step of claiming the Defence budget is balanced over the next ten years. The triumphalism was predictably cheered on his own benches. His problem, however, is that not even they are convinced, since ministers’ mistakes have eroded confidence in their handling of defence.
Let’s remember the time-consuming and expensive aircraft carrier debacle. Ministers have reverted to purchasing the fast jets earmarked by the previous Labour Government after deriding our plans as a ‘mistake’. Hammond’s sole argument is that the facts have changed, but in truth he has changed his mind after examining the facts.
The Public Accounts Committee warned of the rising cost of the Government’s policy. The National Audit Office warned that the Government had an ‘immature understanding’ of costs. The Defence Select Committee warned against strategic shrinkage. Ministers failed to heed these multiple warnings.
It was the Prime Minister himself who referred to the previous Labour Government’s decision as an ‘error’. This certainly wasn’t the first time that he over-reached himself. His claim that the rushed defence review would allow Britain to maintain ‘full-spectrum capability’ was subsequently derided by the Defence Select Committee.
Incompetence and hubris characterise the Government’s carrier policy, and still we don’t know how much this u-turn has squandered. At various points, the MoD has claimed the cost to be £37 million, £50 million and £100 million. Other estimates have put the cost as high as £258 million. British taxpayers and the men and women of our Armed Forces deserve better. In hard times such as these, it is absolutely essential the Government publish the exact total in full.
This shambles is compounded by the needless scrapping of the Harrier fleet in the defence review. They were sold to the Americans for a fraction of their value, shedding essential skills and expertise which will now need to be replaced. This decision also means that Britain, a proud maritime nation, will be without aircraft on our aircraft carriers—an important capability gap—for a decade. You don’t have to be an expert military strategist to understand that if our aircraft carriers have no aircraft on them, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Government ministers have nobody to blame but themselves. The Prime Minister’s decisions have cost British time, money, talent and prestige and he must accept responsibility for this.
The biggest political cost to the Government, however, will be that it is no longer trusted on Defence. The carrier u-turn is not just another chapter in the ongoing ‘omnishambles’, but will also mark a watershed in the public’s trust in the Government’s handling of Defence policy.
It is no wonder, then, that the reaction to the Defence Secretary’s claim to have balanced the budget was to reach for the bucket of salt. He is repeating what his predecessor claimed, only before he was forced to admit he got his figures wrong and announce another wave of Army cuts. We will judge this not on these reheated claims but on the detail.
Already many questions abound. These plans are built on the assumption of a 1% rise in equipment spending over the next ten years which is not guaranteed. They only refer to the Defence Equipment budget, which is 45% of the overall MoD budget, leaving 55% of an annual £35bn budget unaccounted for a decade. The statement was also based on the claim that Ministers have overcome the problems of cost and time over-runs on equipment programmes despite failing to make any meaningful reforms to defence procurement. The Defence Secretary has said he will publish the full equipment programme to prove his claims, but cannot say when; he boasts about a plan for transparency that remains hidden.
Moreover, the Defence Secretary has based his actions—which include 30,000 redundancies, cuts to frontline allowances and cuts to equipment—on his claim the Government inherited a £38 billion budget deficit. The Defence Select Committee, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and Professor Malcolm Chalmers have all described this as unverifiable. The Government has yet to publish how it arrived at this figure, and until it does, cannot credibly claim a sound grasp on the Ministry of Defence budget.
People are routinely asked to take the Government’s word that its figures are correct, but following ministers’ chaotic handling of the strategically vital aircraft carrier programme it is not surprising many are so sceptical. With this Government’s creditability on Defence at a new low we will need to see hard, un-spun figures before we are convinced of the merits of Philip Hammond’s claims.