Is this how Brown could be vulnerable over Afghanistan?
With Speaker Bercow taking the sword to the House tradition of referring to ‘Honourable Members’ it was interesting to be reminded that in years past MPs who were Barristers were referred to as ‘Learned Members’ and those with military service referred to as ‘Gallant Members’.
Whilst there is no shortage of lawyers in the House of Commons nowadays, the number of MPs with a military background is at an historically low ebb.
Military matters are dangerous ground for most politicians – maintaining the balance between the services with internal and intra-service politics, let alone budgeting for large-scale projects, and all in a political minefield where the slighest mistake or ill-judged decision could cost lives.
It seems almost hard to believe that UK forces have been in Afghanistan for almost 8 years, and even with the recent US surge, the end of the conflict (if ‘end’ is even a plausible outcome) seems nowhere in sight. The discussions about military equipment and the potential renewal of Trident must now be taken in the face of tightened economic circumstances, and whilst still at war our ‘peacetime’ budget will be yet more stretched.
In the face of these challenges, it seems remarkable that not only have we seen 3 Secretaries of State for Defence in the last 12 months, but that the newest incarnation – Bob Ainsworth MP – is the most junior member of the Cabinet (in terms of seniority based on time in the Cabinet) to hold the post in living memory.
I find it difficult to envisage him (or anyone) managing the expectations of the services, the electorate, and the Treasury with such a short period of time in the role, and wonder if losing John Hutton (a story that was lost in the chaos of that election week) might prove the most damaging loss Brown suffered in the Cabinet reshuffle.
For a PM who has put an emphasis on supporting ‘Britishness’, I don’t think any charge could be as damaging to him as the claim that he is neglectful of the Afghan campaign, and yet giving ownership of such massive decisions to a comparative novice in Cabinet could be seen as just that. The message of economic failure has begun to seep into the public consciousness, but we all know how resonant the support for troops can be in the country at large, and it seems odd that Defence and Foreign Affairs are not given as much prominance in British Elections as might be expected.
We already know that the Economy will be one of the biggest battlegrounds at the next election, but I wonder if our continued presence in Afghanistan, our requirement for a Nuclear Deterrant, and the role of Britain in the World might not be stark dividing lines at the next election. I suspect that any failures by the Labour government in this regard might be far more damaging than other complaints that might arise – the question is which party will benefit?