Richard North, 02/10/2005  

If the inadequacy of the media is one part of the problem affecting the body politic, another part is highlighted in the Booker column today.

Headed, "When it comes to defence, it seems there is no Opposition", Booker observes that, as the Tories gather in Blackpool for their latest bout of introversion, it is salutary to recall that we taxpayers hand over £40 million a year to them to act on our behalf as Her Majesty's Opposition.

"Thirty-six million of this," he writes, "represents the pay and expenses of their 197 MPs. The other £4 million is 'Short money', paid to help them do their job of opposing the Government more effectively."

Booker refers to the Garland's cartoon in Friday's Daily Telegraph, showing a weary Michael Howard handing on a large flag labelled "HM Opposition" to Walter Wolfgang, while his colleagues squabble like children in the background, apparently too preoccupied with who should play leader to worry about the work they are paid for.

But, says Booker:

A more fundamental way to answer the question might centre on the extraordinary revelations recently unfolded in this column of how the Government is signing away astronomic sums of public money on a series of dubious defence contracts, in furtherance of its stealthy attempt to integrate the European Union's defence efforts.

By any measure, this is a huge story, involving a massive gamble with Britain's Armed Forces, the potential waste of tens of billions of pounds, elaborate Government deceit, and an end to this country's "special relationship" with the United States. It should also be prompting a very serious national debate as to just what the Armed Forces are now for.

There was a time when defence was a core concern to the Conservative Party. But one reason why these revelations have not aroused greater public attention is that the Tories seem not to have got to square one in appreciating what the Government is up to. In response to concerned party members, the Tory defence spokesman, Michael Ancram, has shown no grasp of how desperately skewed the Government's procurement programme has become towards "buying European"; nor of how the technicalities of modern electronic, satellite-based warfare are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to fight alongside the Americans as allies.

When a junior defence minister last summer revealed that the cost of the Army's Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) programme had soared from £6 billion to £14 billion, easily the British Army's most expensive-ever procurement project, this was in response to a lone Tory backbencher, Ann Winterton. FRES grew out of what was originally a joint project with the US, which we abandoned in favour of our new "Europe-first" policy. Only last week it was announced that the US may now be scrapping further development of the project because technically it is proving too complex. We are thus faced with the prospect of spending £14 billion on a project which doesn't work. Yet the Tory front bench remains silent.

When another Tory MP, Sir Patrick Cormack, was asked by a constituent to raise with the Government some of the points raised by this column, he sent on without comment a reply from Lord Drayson, the procurement minister, so breathtakingly disingenuous that one wonders whether the noble lord has any idea of what he is talking about. (He claims, for instance, that the EU has no plans to set up a European Rapid Reaction Force, as Mr Blair agreed to do at Cologne and Helsinki in 1999.)
And now for the plug. The facts of this "secret realignment" of UK defence policy have been set out in exhaustive detail in a paper, The Wrong Side of the Hill, by this Blogger, soon to be published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

Once this meticulously documented paper is in the public domain, we shall see from the Conservative Party's response whether it is prepared to earn some of that £40 million - or whether it is too engrossed in its leadership contest to care.


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