David Blackburn

Fox, Osborne and Cameron engaged in Whitehall’s oldest battle

Fox, Osborne and Cameron engaged in Whitehall’s oldest battle
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Tory on Tory is a brutal cock-fight when defence is concerned. After the leaking of Liam Fox’s now infamous letter and David Cameron’s measured retaliation, George Osborne has broken his silence. Making unspoken reference to the £38bn black hole in the MoD’s budget, Osborne tells this morning’s Telegraph that he was ‘not thrilled’ to learn of Fox’s ‘do we really want to cut defence this much letter’ and says that Labour left the MoD in ‘chaos’, signing Britain up to ‘expensive and pointless projects’.

The press will run this as a conference Tory splits story. There are clear differences between ministers, but they actually reflect entrenched positions within the MoD: should Britain exercise an expensive blue water strategy or concentrate on a petite professional army designed for home defence and limited expeditions?

This debate is not new: Henry Pelham and Pitt the Elder disagreed vehemently over naval expenditure, and the sides of debate were never obviously delineated: some admirals sided with Pelham the landlubber.

Then as now, scything through the thicket of conflicting interests is hot work. As I understand it, Liam Fox favours a blue water strategy, based on a strong maritime arm with aircraft carriers, surface raiders and an independent nuclear deterrent; the army meanwhile should stop fighting imaginary Russians.

Various forces are arraigned against him. A flotilla of ship-less admirals ask the reasonable question: ‘Who would we fight with this fleet of obliteration? Surely we could beat the Argentines without a super carrier group and the support vessels and anti-submarine capability that come with it?’ Far better, they argue, to build more small ships to defend trade routes, target seaborne crime and aid humanitarian operations.

Fox faces diplomatic opposition. Extracting British deployments from Germany would require NATO to reconfigure at a time when the alliance is rotting in Afghanistan, and while Russia and China are becoming at least more passive aggressive to the west – Russian fly-bys have returned. (Equally, many say NATO is well into its dotage and should be packed-off to Dignitas)

Then there is the army. CDS General Sir David Richards argues that the Britain’s military future lies in counter-terrorism and post-conflict resolution, a task to which the army is essential. Richards has a growing reputation at DfID, which sees the army as an ally in the struggle against global disorder and poverty. Charles Moore, whose Policy Exchange think tank published a report to the same effect recently, agrees in his column today. The RAF, long since stripped of its nuclear deterrent role but essential to home defence and operational support, is in a curious hinterland, holding its breath for a review that Whitehall’s more sensational blabber-mouths believe could abolish it.

The word is that the National Security Council favours General Richards’ approach, no doubt because it is cheaper and, politically, the government cannot cut the army without reducing its diplomatic and military dispositions in Afghanistan. Judging by the events of the past week, those two calculations have brought more than morsel of short-term political bias to long-term strategic planning; but then again, so did Pelham and Pitt.