Is Cameron heading for a defence cuts revolt?

Is Cameron heading for a defence cuts revolt?

Does the Libyan operation change the terms of debate?

Making cuts is always difficult for a government: voters lose out. When cuts are targeted, some groups suffer substantially in relative terms; when they are more or less across the board, everyone ends up with less, or at least less than they thought they’d have. The only real antidote to that difficulty is winning the argument that the cuts are both fair and necessary.

Getting that right is hard at the best of times and even harder when events intervene, at which point some nimble repositioning is usually needed to avoid being wrong footed, as the situation regarding defence may soon demonstrate.

The proposed cuts to manpower and equipment were always controversial within the Tory ranks. However, the coincidence of the announcement of redundancies with the apparently successful outcome in Libya and the approaching Conservative Conference makes for a particularly tricky situation for the leadership. The case against simply being that the cuts are neither fair nor necessary.

The question of necessity boils down to what the government – or the party/ies forming it – want the military to be able to do. If it does aspire for the army, navy and air force to be able to carry out the sort of operations they have been doing over the last ten years then there is a point at which further cuts render that no longer possible, probably not far off current manpower levels.

If that’s a technical argument and one that can get bogged down in details of efficiency, procurement overspends at the MoD and so on, then the fairness case is far simpler: firstly, it’s not right to be making redundant service personnel who are, or have very recently been, involved in active service; secondly, that it’s unfair that with all the demands being placed on the services, the defence budget is being cut while the international development budget is not.

The government has largely won the argument about the need for tackling the deficit; the debate has moved onto what and how. But therein lies the great millstone of Cameron’s pledge about the development budget. This isn’t something that he can explain away as part of the coalition deal but something he proactively committed to.

Unlike the NHS, which was the other beneficiary of guaranteed funding, international development is not a particularly popular use of government money beyond disaster relief. It is difficult for activists and MPs to defend even the reprioritised development budget being sacrosanct when the forces – involved in two conflicts – are seeing theirs reduced. If they even want to, which by and large they won’t. In fact, it’s an argument that can be deployed in opposition to cuts in the budget of any pet area.

The successful overthrow of the Gaddafi regime ought to be a highlight of Cameron’s year. Had he decided to stand by, it’s improbable that Sarkozy could have put a viable coalition together quickly enough (or at all) given Obama’s initial reticence. Benghazi would have fallen to Gaddafi’s troops and a slaughter ensued. But that success reinforced the need to be able to take semi-independent meaningful military action – a point likely to be reiterated over coming weeks.

David Herdson



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