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.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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