CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE IN THE WORLD (FRONT BENCH) – 8 May 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: It is often alleged that this Government have no strategy and are hopeless, adrift and directionless; but there was a time when they did have a strategy, so that criticism is a little unfair. The strategy was very clear – order the carriers, leave Iraq, call a general election – but unfortunately it was sunk without trace by a well-aimed torpedo from my hon. Friend the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is partly why the Government find themselves in the difficulties that they face.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Shadow Secretary of State, today is the 63rd anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. At that time, back in 1945, there were some similarities with and many considerable differences from the situation that we face today. Among the similarities was the fact that the country was pretty exhausted and pretty well drained of the resources that were needed to sustain strong military forces. However, one reason why the country was able to take comfort was the fact that it still just about had the remains of an imperial network of bases, so if its interests around the world were threatened it would be able to deploy forces from those bases. As it turned out, with decolonisation, that situation did not last very long; but as it also turned out, the main threat that the United Kingdom faced for many years after the victory in 1945 was close at hand – the threat on the continent of Europe. From 1949 onwards, the focus was therefore very much on forces based nearby in friendly countries on the continent of Europe as part of the NATO alliance.

What has happened since the end of the Cold War was well encapsulated in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Although there is a great deal of consensus that we need once again to review the balance between the commitments and the resources that our Armed Forces must respectively fulfil and have available, the situation that we faced at the time of the Strategic Defence Review has not changed in one important respect – that if we are to apply military power around the world, and as we no longer have the network of imperial bases that we still had back in 1945, we must be able to project power onto the land from the sea. That was the basis of the concept of the Strategic Defence Review being centred on the provision of two aircraft carriers. There need to be at least two because no ship, however powerful and well designed, can remain continuously at sea.

I want, if I may, to press the Minister to give an answer as a follow-on to the admirably clear answer that he gave me on the question of when the orders might reasonably be expected to be placed. He said:

"Construction of each ship will take an estimated five and a half years." – [Official Report, 1 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 593W]

If that is so, and if the new in-service dates for the carriers – the date for the first one was originally supposed to be 2012; now it is 2014 – are to be adhered to, and if we have to allow time for the sea trials, which will take at least a year and possibly longer, as in the case of the Type 45 destroyers, as well as time for working up before the ship really joins the fleet, then we are perilously near to the very last opportunity for ordering the carriers if those dates are not to slide off again.

While we are on the subject of the Royal Navy, may I give the Minister an opportunity to put my mind at rest about something disturbing that I read in The Sunday Times? It may be that the MOD has issued a response to it, but if so, I have not seen it. The article was written by Marie Woolf and headed, "Pirates can claim UK asylum". It said:

"The Royal Navy, once the scourge of brigands on the high seas, has been told by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so may breach their human rights. Warships patrolling pirate-infested waters, such as those off Somalia, have been warned that there is also a risk that captured pirates could claim asylum in Britain. The Foreign Office has advised that pirates sent back to Somalia could have their human rights breached because, under Islamic law, they face beheading for murder or having a hand chopped off for theft."

I tabled questions on that subject to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, and in neither case has the reply explicitly made it clear whether that is the position or not. I would like reassurance that if the Royal Navy encounters any murderous brigands on the high seas, it will take the sort of action that the people of this country and seafarers worldwide are entitled to expect.

Let me move on to some of the contributions made in the debate. The Secretary of State and the Shadow Secretary of State focused on Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, as we might expect, and on future threats. The Secretary of State was mainly concerned about ballistic missile defence and my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Liam Fox) was concerned about the possibility of a re-emergence of Russian offensive activities. We have to be somewhat chagrined to see the handover that took place in Russia recently; it is not quite what we had in mind when we thought that Russia was going down the democratic path.

We need to be well aware of what threats might be, as well as present threats. That leads me to the remarks of the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), some of which I strongly agreed with. In particular, I thought that it was good of him to place it clearly on the record that, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Liberal Democrats – I use his words – "absolutely support" the long haul in that country. I was a little uncertain where he stood on the question of withdrawal from Iraq, because he seemed to be saying that we should do it as fast as can safely be considered. I am not sure whether he is referring to safety for the troops in the process of withdrawal, in which case we could get down to the task immediately, or safety for those who would be left behind, in which case there is little difference between him and the other parties in the House. We would all like to see the troops withdrawn, in the knowledge that the time has come when the people left behind – the Iraqis – will be safe.

The hon. Gentleman also said that we do not face an imminent threat of state-on-state warfare. He referred to what he called the warfare of this generation, meaning the counter-insurgency campaigns in which we are currently engaged. I have only two minutes left, and I would like to say a little about that thesis, because it is not the first time that I have heard it. I have heard it increasingly from senior people in the Army, and they take the view that because the Army is fighting two significant counter-insurgency campaigns with inadequate resources, we will have to denude the Armed Forces of their long-term ability to fight in state-versus-state conflicts in order to win the wars in which we are currently engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) put his finger on it when he said that it is a matter of the defence budget. He then said – he is able to say this with the freedom of the Back Benches – that he would like to see the defence budget doubled. I am sure that I would like to see it doubled, too, and I am sure of one other thing: if my hon. Friend the Shadow Chancellor intends to announce an increase in the defence budget that would be brought in by a Conservative Government, he will do it at an equally lethal moment to that of his last announcement about inheritance tax – and that will not be two years out from a General Election.

Our being two years away from power is no excuse for the Government, who are currently in power. There is one thing that they are not doing – adequately resourcing the commitments in which they are engaged. We have heard that time after time, from speaker after speaker, at least on the Opposition Benches. When we get into government, the Conservative Party will either put full resources into commitments or it will not undertake those commitments. It cannot be done both ways. The way the Government are doing it is by fighting current wars on a peacetime defence budget, and that is imperilling the long-term future of our Armed Forces.