Peter Hoskin

Liam Fox does a David Miliband

Liam Fox does a David Miliband
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At least the political fates have a sense of humour. No sooner had David Miliband's frustration screamed into view last night, than the Tories were hit by a story that was similar in several regards: the leaked Liam Fox letter, expressing his anger over spending cuts. Here are a handful of those similarities:

1) Leakage. David Miliband's words for Harriet Harman were meant to be for their ears only, but the TV cameras picked them up. Similarly, Fox's letter was meant to be between him and the PM – but now it's splashed across the front page of the Telegraph. The only difference is that the Fox letter has been put out by someone in Whitehall, a politically interested actor. Not only is this something that is, as Tim Montgomerie notes, happening with drip-drop regularity – but it will up the paranoia levels in government.   


2) Tension.
If anything, Fox's intervention is even more angry than Miliband's. He writes of the defence review that, "frankly, this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR and more like a "super [Comprehensive Spending Review]. If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us." He adds that, "the cuts are “financially and intellectually virtually impossible," and that the Tories risk, "destroying much of [their] reputation and capital" on defence as a result. That he is making these pleas directly to the Prime Minister, rather than to Danny Alexander and his spending review team, is a sure sign of the tensions between the MoD and the Treasury.  

3) Understandable. I said yesterday that I have some symapthy for David Miliband's attack on Harman and her fellow Iraq sidesteppers – and likewise for Liam Fox's points in this letter. Defence was one of the few areas that didn't enjoy the sloppy largesse of the Brown years, operating on a peacetime budget during two major conflicts. And, now that Labour have been shunted out, the rationalisation process appears to be proceeding messily. Some officials complain about a "listless" defence review that "lacks direction," and that the cuts are being directed by Treasury targets rather than by strategic considerations. I don't doubt, though, that significant savings can be found – especially when it comes to procurement. And, in the end, it might just come down to the distinction that Paul Goodman makes over at ConservativeHome: "David Cameron can either shelter Departmental budgets or reduce the deficit. He can't do both."

4) Difficulties. The Milifootage came at the worst time for his party: in the immediate aftermath of his brother's maiden speech as party leader. The Fox letter comes at a bad time for the Tories: just days ahead of their party conference. Westminster will now train its Geiger counters on Fox and Osborne, eager to pick up any signs of fallout. More significant, though, is the fact that the spending review is only three weeks away. Might Fox's letter embolden other ministers to lobby the Prime Minister directly, and with anger? In any case, how Downing St responds will be crucial in taming the demands of other departments.