Alex Massie

Liam Fox Declares War on George Osborne

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Liam Fox may well be correct to argue that the Ministry of Defence ought not to be subject to the same level of cuts as other government departments. It is odd to ring-fence NHS and International Development budgets but not the MoD even though there's supposed to be a war on and all the rest of it.

But let's not pretend that a 10% cut in the MoD budget will necessarily, as the good doctor warns, "destroy" the "reputation and capital" the Tories have accumulated on defence issues for the very good reason that I'm not sure how much that capital has really been earned. Eighteen months ago Fox's defence policy was, broadly speaking, much the same as the then Labour government's with the single difference being that Fox wanted to spend more on defence. Few people listening to his speeches then would have thought there were many if any tough choices ahead. (Hell, Fox indulged in any amount of nonsense about standing with Georgia and pretending that we could give Tbilisi some kind of meaningful commitment.)

Then this time last year Fox told the Tory party conference he could - and would - cut the MoD budget by a quarter without this having any impact on "front-line services". At best that promise showed questionable judgement at worst it was thoroughly irresponsible. Now Fox is finding that the Boys at the Treasury seem to think he was being serious.

No wonder, as he puts it, "Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review)." This is true but it's also a consequence of the Tory defence teams' own failures and their apparent belief that everything can be delivered by our old chum Mr Efficiency Saving. 

Certainly Fox is trying to fight his corner in public but it's not, in general, a good way to conduct government.

Again, Fox is right that it seems crazy - and will seem crazy to Tory supporters - to be slashing defence spending and this, I guess, is an area in which Steve Hilton and Co must take some measure of blame. But if defence has been mismanaged by the Cameroons then those responsible for bringing forth some credible defence policies - ie Doc Fox et al - must also bear some responsibility for the failure to produce any or even any clear idea of where the Tories would like us to be. 

It's hard to see how they get out of this: the Treasury can't stomach defeat (and a Fox victory will also embolden other ministers) and there's a limit to how much procurement can be punted down the line.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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