Liam Fox says defence cuts are necessary

Defence Secretary plays a straight bat in television interview.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister published today in the Independent on Sunday, 50 senior military figures, politicians and academics call for the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to be reopened, arguing that financial considerations have trumped military ones:

The Strategic Defence and Security Review seems to have been driven by financial rather than military considerations. Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have highlighted the unpredictability of global security – there was no mention of North Africa in the SDSR at all. The security landscape has radically changed and some of the assumptions on which the review was based should be reconsidered.

The irony of HMS Cumberland, which faces being decommissioned, playing a key role in evacuations from Benghazi is not lost on those who take an interest in the future of the Royal Navy. The announcement of redundancies in the RAF on the same day as speculation about enforcing a no-fly zone was also regrettable.

Britain's ability to play a role in the event of military action in Libya has been called into question in recent days. In light of the new potential threats posed by unrest in North Africa, we urge David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, to reopen the SDSR and ensure the forces are properly structured and adequately funded to meet the nation's requirements.

Asked by the BBC's Andrew Marr this morning for his reaction to the letter, the Defence Secretary stolidly defended the SDSR, blaming in now time-honoured fashion the need to make cuts on the fiscal "black hole" left behind by Labour. Fox said he felt "very sad" that thousands of servicemen were being given their P45s, but insisted that "you cannot be secure if you're broke" – which rather bears out the analysis made in that open letter.

Marr also asked Fox about reports that a unit from the SAS had been seized by opposition forces in Libya's second city, Benghazi. Fox admitted that a British "diplomatic team" was in Benghazi trying to make contact with the opposition, but said it would be "inappropriate" to say anything more.

As for British policy on Libya, Fox made two significant remarks. First, he complained that the disparate, incohate nature of the opposition to Muammar al-Gaddafi made it "a difficult situation to understand", though he insisted that the government wanted "to be able to work with [opposition groups]"; as for plans for a no-fly zone over Libya, Fox said they remained a "possibility", and that contingency plans were being laid with Britain's partners in Nato.

There were no plans, however, for British land forces to be used if the situation in Libya deteriorated.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.