STRATEGIC DEFENCE & SECURITY REVIEW – 26 January 2012

Dr Julian Lewis: I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot) on initiating the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on choosing it as today’s topic. I was particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend started the debate by emphasising the unpredictability of future conflicts, a point re-emphasised in the strongest possible terms by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray). Having listened to the Secretary of State for Defence today, I believe that what he is trying to do is create a balanced budget without sacrificing the aim of having the balanced forces that we need. That is a necessary approach, and we should resist the temptation to say that we ought to sacrifice particular capabilities forever, simply because we cannot conceive at this moment of going to war, or entering some lesser conflict, unless we are in coalition with allies.

I was impressed by some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who pointed out the gaps in capability resulting from the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4. In a later intervention she referred to the problems relating to the loss of fixed-wing aircraft carrier aircraft capability. If we acknowledge the certainty that we will be unable to predict the vast majority of cases in which we shall need to send our Armed Forces to war, and couple that with a restricted budget, which means that we will often have to choose either what is commonly and derogatorily called salami-slicing, or abandoning certain capabilities permanently, I believe that the salami-slicing approach, unpleasant though it is, is broadly the correct one – because we do not know when, where, against whom or how we will have to go to war. We cannot predict which of the vast range of military capabilities that we currently have we will need to use. Therefore, in straitened economic circumstances when we cannot afford to spend as much on defence as we would like to, and as indeed we feel in our hearts we ought to, we must nevertheless preserve what are called ‘nucleus’ forces, which give us the potential when the need arises to expand on the capabilities that we have retained, even though at any given time those capabilities have seemed to be inadequate.

In that connection, if Ministers are working within an ‘economic envelope’ – that is not the best terminology to use, but it has been used today so I shall continue with it – in times of peace, we can all understand that; but, whenever we end up in a serious armed conflict, those economic considerations are always relegated to second place, and Ministers simply have to put aside considerations of affordability in favour of the absolute necessity of taking the measures which that conflict situation requires them to take.

It is now just over 30 years since my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Edward Leigh), a gentleman called Councillor Tony Kerpel, a former chief of staff to a former Chairman of the Conservative Party, and I set up a coalition. It was not quite the sort of coalition that we have today, which, as hon. Members may know, is so close to my heart [Laughter]. It was the Coalition for Peace Through Security, and its purpose was to fight for the changeover from Polaris to the first generation of Trident and for the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain so that eventually we would be able to negotiate a deal – which we did in 1987 – to get rid of intermediate nuclear forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe.

I am therefore very happy to reassure the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), in his absence, that I do not feel at all proprietorial about the arguments in favour of the nuclear deterrent. I am absolutely delighted when people such as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who I know had not intended to speak today, rise to their feet and defend it with such vigour.

I was pleased, but I shall look very closely at Hansard tomorrow to see exactly what the Shadow Secretary of State said when I asked him to clarify and confirm his party’s commitment to the renewal of Trident, and in particular to the successor generation of submarines. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister, given that the Secretary of State did not refer to it, to clarify our own position on that very subject.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Gerald Howarth): Prompted by my hon. Friend, I am delighted to say, as he will know, that in the SDSR and in our Trident value-for-money review the Government committed to renewing the independent nuclear deterrent: submarine-based, continuously at sea, patrolling. That programme is being taken forward. Initial gate was in May last year, and I assure him that all the work is continuing and in progress. If I may, I also take this opportunity to salute my hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Edward Leigh), and Tony Kerpel on the then Coalition, because I supported it at the time and am delighted to be in government supporting it now.

Dr Lewis: I thank the Minister for those very generous comments, but we are very short of time, so I am now going to truncate my remarks.

I shall say just a brief word about the masterly exposition by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). He always grips the House with his expositions, but the trouble is that I do not always find that I can fully endorse their contents, even though I am fascinated by the elegance and fluency with which he advances them. I share his view, and always have, that the micro-management of the country of Afghanistan is a mistake on the part of the NATO powers – but, whatever happens in America, I find it a little difficult to recognise the idea of generals in this country being somewhat out of control, and pursuing a military agenda with the Foreign Office trailing in their wake. My only point (which I will be happy to discuss with my hon. Friend afterwards) is that when the archives about the decision to go into Helmand are opened, we will probably find that that decision was ultimately taken – and, I suspect, mainly driven – by politicians rather than by generals or diplomats. I may be wrong: history will have to decide.