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Britain's defence, Labour's winner?

Conservatives' claim to uphold a safe country and strong military no longer works.

Paul Rogers
19 July 2018

The Conservative government in Britain led by Theresa May faces deep divisions over Brexit, so deep indeed that its very survival even in the short term cannot be assured. For much of the past two years, its ability to remain upright has owed much to its ability to cast the opposition, a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, as a serious threat.

In practice this means that when Brexit pressures get really acute, and dissident MPs risk the government's tiny working majority in the House of Commons, a variant of “project fear” begins to operate: that is, conjuring the nightmare of another general election that will propel the appalling far-left Corbyn into Downing Street.

But Conservative Party strategists and media supporters also know that this approach is inherently unreliable. Disunity among May’s MPs – extending even to mutual loathing – is increasing and will not go away. The publication of the government's Brexit plan, subsequent resignations, and parliamentary turmoil have been followed by four opinion polls showing Labour ahead of the Tories by several points, a reversal of previous trends.

These daily concerns are reinforced by the general election campaign in 2017, when an unprecedented swing in political atmosphere and then in votes saw Corbyn come close to mission impossible and actually take power. Thus the Tories are in another bind to add to their many existing ones: the prospect of another election is profoundly worrying, yet they have no choice but to make preparations for it.

Much remains in flux, and the election's timing is unknowable. But an early contest is feasible, and Tory planners will be keen to find any policy area that gives them an advantage over Labour. The austerity card was played in 2017, but its message of “there is no alternative” was deftly countered by Corbyn and his team, and cannot easily be resurrected. Similarly, Theresa May's “strong and stable” mantra will not work, having also foundered last time, and any talk of Labour disunity will simply draw attention to the Tories' own problems.

Across all policy fields there remains just one where the Tories are traditionally confident of bettering Labour: defence, that good old faithful. It seems all the more propitious as they can label Jeremy Corbyn an appeasing peacenik, certain to imperil the country at the first sign of an international crisis. Even here, though, the governing party is concerned that Corbyn is more resilient on such charges than in the past, not least because of new support from younger voters. 

A red flag warning

There are two underlying factors here which can help Labour. The first is a legacy element.  Britain has fought three major wars in recent years – Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – all of which have in different ways been disastrous. It doesn't help the Conservatives much that the first two were launched under Tony Blair’s Labour government, given that Corbyn opposed them vigorously as a backbench MP. Where Libya is concerned, begun under David Cameron's premiership, this can readily be linked to the war's destructive consequences: weaponry spreading across northern Africa, many more migrants desperate to reach Europe, and escalating violence across the Sahel region (see "Labour, ahoy! HMS UK needs you", 28 June 2018).

The second factor should worry Theresa May's planners even more: evidence of persistent incompetence in the ministry of defence over the organisation and management of major new defence projects. The UK's Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) finds that the number of “red-flagged”, defence projects – that is, unachievable and requiring reassessment – has increased from one to five in 2017-18. 

The IPA, answering to the Cabinet Office, is the independent assessor of major government projects across government. Its recent report has some good news, including the successful completion of the Francis Crick bioscience centre in London, Europe’s largest, but not so when it comes to defence. Specifically, its annual report on defence projects, just published, gives further proof of the mismanagement of some of the UK’s key defence-equipment programmes. The projects are:

* a £1.5 billion programme to build new nuclear-reactor cores for submarines (“red flagged” in 2017)

* a £9.9 billion Astute-class submarine programme (new)

* a £1.8 billion Marshall military air-traffic control system (new)

* a £907 million Protector armed-drone programme (new)

* a £1.6 billion Warrior armoured fighting vehicle upgrade (new)

This fivefold rise comes when the number of projects in the second highest risk category have greatly increased in just one year from seven to thirteen. Such a category, amber / red, means: “successful delivery of the project is in doubt”.

Jane’s Defence Weekly says:

“The rise in risks associated with the MoD’s 37 major projects, valued in total at £134.7 billion, will be of concern to UK ministers, who are currently in a battle with the country’s treasury (finance ministry) to secure additional funding.  The uncertainty about many of its most important projects threatens to derail attempts to put the UK’s budget on a firm footing” (see Tim Ripley, “Risks rise in UK defence procurement programmes”, JDW, 11 July 2018).

What makes this a bigger problem for the Conservatives is that all the “red flag” issues are new in 2018, with but one exception. They also come on top of some unresolved issues of long standing: among them, huge problems with Type-45 destroyers and a ten-year gap in the RAF’s maritime capabilities.

The political implication is clear. Any attempt by the Tories to raise the issue of Labour’s defence policy during the election campaign, whenever that comes, will invite an easy response from Corbyn and his team. Labour, whatever direction for UK defence policy it chooses to advocate, can charge the Conservative with incompetence over the defence of the realm (see "How Labour can make Britain secure", 20 July 2017).

Since defence is the area where Britain’s Conservatives normally regard themselves as unassailable, this powerful accusation will hurt more than almost any other. Whenever the election comes, this at least will make for an interesting campaign.

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