CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE POLICY (FRONT BENCH) – 22 June 2006

Dr Julian Lewis: I begin with a question that is not entirely rhetorical. Which Labour politician has described the Trident programme as

"unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound." – [Official Report, 19 June 1984 ; Vol. 62, c. 188.],

and which Labour politician supported

"a Britain not aligned to any major power"

 – and therefore presumably no longer a member of NATO? Was it the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), who believes in such things, and has for many years? Was it the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), or perhaps the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Chris Mullin)? I have to say that it was none of those. It was, in fact, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Admittedly that was some years ago, at a time when we faced an extremely visible nuclear threat from the then Soviet Union. I am delighted to note that although the imminence of the threat has declined, appreciation of the issues – at least as far as the Chancellor is concerned – has clearly increased.

It is not every day of the week that defence features on the front pages of the newspapers. One would like to think that such an achievement would cause joy and rejoicing, and the ringing of bells in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr Robathan: A sinner repents!

Dr Lewis: A sinner has indeed repented. The only question is: what is the nature of the repentance? The headlines make that quite clear. The Daily Mail says "Brown pledges £25 billion to new Trident". The Financial Times says "Brown in promise to replace Trident". The Daily Telegraph headline is "Brown in favour of updating Trident", while the headlines in The Times are "Brown ready to call the shots by replacing Trident missiles", and "Britain to buy new nuclear deterrent". The headline list would be incomplete without the trusty old Daily Mirror’s "Nukey Brown" and "Gordon: I will back £25bn A-bomb".

The irrepressible Minister for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) has claimed that the Chancellor said nothing new but was merely repeating what was in the Labour General Election manifesto. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but nevertheless I detected a straw in the wind in the words that the Chancellor used last night. He talked about retaining our nuclear deterrent, but he also used the words

"in this Parliament, and the long term also".

It is hard to see how the phrase "the long term also" could apply if he was talking only about retaining the present deterrent. However, we do not have to rely on that exegesis, as the Guardian – which knows about these things – reports:

"Treasury sources made it clear that although Mr. Brown talked about retaining the nuclear deterrent rather than replacing it, the chancellor was giving his personal backing to a new generation of missiles."

That is a clear answer to the question that my colleagues and I have asked Ministers on many occasions: are they talking only about retaining the existing deterrent, or about a decision to replace it?

If the Minister’s interpretation of the Chancellor’s comments is correct, why has the Chancellor not been rushing to the media today to say:

"Chaps, sorry, you’ve got it all wrong. All those headlines are wrong, and I was merely saying what we’ve said all along – that we’re not going to scrap the weapons that we already have. I have no thought in my mind about replacement."

The Prime Minister’s spokesman has been doing his best to clarify matters – not in respect of replacement, but on whether there will be a vote on the issue. Much to the satisfaction of people like the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) –

Harry Cohen indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding enthusiastically, because the Opposition have ensured – even if we have to use one of our days – that hon. Members of all parties will have an opportunity to vote on the matter, whether the Government want that or not.

The Lobby briefing document states that, on Trident, the spokesman

"was asked whether any vote in the House of Commons would be a 'straight yes/no vote' or would there be a series of options. The spokesman said, 'What the Prime Minister said yesterday, echoing what he has said before, is that there will be a proper discussion'. 'But would there be a vote?' he was asked again. 'There will be a proper discussion,' he replied."

Defence Ministers have said today that no decision has been taken, either in detail or in principle, but I believe that they are trying to plug the hole in the dam that the Chancellor has opened up. There is no real excuse for a delay in making a decision in principle. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State outlined with his customary elegance and eloquence exactly why there is a need for a nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. It hinges on one simple concept: the unpredictability of any outbreak of war in the future – and I think that I detect the Minister nodding in some form of agreement with that proposition.

However, we are talking about having a nuclear deterrent between 2020 and 2050. Given that the real justification for that is that we cannot anticipate what threats might materialise from countries armed with weapons of mass destruction, why delay deciding the question of principle? The principle will be unaffected in a year, six months or three months from now. If we are going to decide then that we need to keep a nuclear deterrent because of the unpredictability of future threats, we might as well as do so now. It is interesting that the Chancellor has decided on it now, even though the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues – who are at least here today – are still trying to pretend that he has not.

If I had to summarise the themes that have primarily emerged in the debate, I would say that they are three: Trident and the principles behind it; Afghanistan and the tactics involved in dealing with that issue; and Iraq and what is best described as the political will to win. I have already addressed the first of those issues, and I want to say a word or two about Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned in passing the practice of reading out at Prime Minister’s Question Time condolences for individual members of the armed forces who have lost their lives. That is honourably motivated, but it is worth remembering that it would have been quite impracticable in most of the wars that we have fought in the past, because there were many more casualties in those wars than are being incurred among British service personnel in the campaigns today.

In a strange way, therefore, the country has perhaps lost sight of the fact that when we engage in armed conflict, there are very heavy prices indeed to be paid. One of the reasons why the country has lost sight of that is that the longest war that we successfully fought and concluded in recent times was the 50 years of the cold war, and it ended without a shot being fired. All those countries that had been held under dictatorship and suppression were able to come out into the sunlight and pick up the reins of democratic practice. That was an exception to the rule of history, and we delude ourselves if we think that we can engage in conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and expect that they will be as simple as that involved in substituting a democracy for a dictatorship.

We must look back to the successful counter-insurgency campaign – I have made this point from the Dispatch Box before – that was waged over 12 years in Malaya. That is how long it took. Whether that campaign, which has been widely taken as the model of winning hearts and minds, could be fought to a successful outcome today, with legalistic supervision and 24-hour media coverage, is open to question. As well as winning hearts and minds, the tactics involved were to send armed patrols out to find the enemy and eliminate them ruthlessly, while isolating them from the population at large.

I am relieved that the new Secretary of State for Defence seems to have consigned to the wastepaper bin the absolutely nonsensical description and distinction that his predecessor, whom I much admire – I make no secret of that, but I did not admire him for doing this – tried to draw between 'counter-terrorism' and 'counter-insurgency'. In any such campaign, if we wait for terrorists or insurgents to come to our armed forces before we react, we will lose. The only way in which such a campaign can succeed is to follow the aggressive strategy against the insurgents that is now being followed, and in which British forces are clearly engaged, whereby they are seeking out the enemy. As a commanding officer, Brigadier Nick Pope, has just said:

"We have put the terrorists on the back foot and seized the initiative".

That is what must be done, and I welcome the fact that the politicians are catching up with the military – in so far as they are doing so.

I will come to Iraq in my final remarks, but I now wish to turn briefly to the contributions that hon. Members have made from the Back Benches. There were 10 of them – three from Government Back Benchers and seven from Opposition Back Benchers. All of the latter contributions were, for some reason, from Conservative Members, rather than from Members of the self-styled 'real' Opposition: the Liberal Democrats.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, to whom I have already referred a couple of times, made a consistent speech in which he talked thoughtfully about the dangers of failed states. He also made a remark that should give all of us pause for thought when, in speaking about the situation in Somalia, he said that one must not react intrinsically against any new Muslim administration without being absolutely certain that they intend to ally themselves with militant Islamism that is hostile to freedom. Such a group might be a potential enemy of that sort, but we must be very careful before we decide that; otherwise, we are playing the game of the terrorists and creating allies for them.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Robert Flello) is a living example of the value of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I am delighted to say that I am on my fourth incarnation in that scheme. I pay tribute to the patience and hospitality of the commandant at the Royal College of Defence Studies, Sir Ian Garnett, and his colleagues, in welcoming me and several other Members on to this year’s course. It is greatly to the credit of the hon. Gentleman that so soon in his parliamentary career, he decided to undertake the major commitment of doing the AFPS course. His contribution made clear the great benefit that he has derived from it.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) touched once again on his concerns about the decision to invade Iraq, but he was absolutely resolute on the vital importance of not reducing our military commitment in Afghanistan. He said that once we decide to go somewhere we must stay, and that sending signals about withdrawals and timetables would be the worst possible thing that could be done for the welfare and safety of our forces.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made a very strong speech. She made a robust defence of the armed forces in Iraq and touched on the role of the media – an issue to which, if I have time, I shall return at the end. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot), who is Chairman of the Defence Committee, said that the Chancellor had repeated the Labour manifesto commitment on defence. He also raised the important issue of whether the Chancellor proposes to put his money where his mouth is, if he does indeed intend that the nuclear deterrent should be replaced, by funding it separately.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) asked a series of penetrating questions; I am glad that I do not have time to attempt to answer them all. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Andrew Robathan) – I was sorry not to be present when he made his speech – stressed, typically robustly, the need for senior officers to stand up for their troops.

My hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Ilford, North (Lee Scott) illustrated something that is very true about life in this Chamber: when Members put aside their prepared speeches and speak from the heart about a topic that really excites and inspires them, they can hold the House in the palm of their hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood) is a persistent campaigner on defence issues and – be it votes on Trident, roles for Typhoon or narcotics in Afghanistan – today was no exception.

My final point relates to the situation in Iraq, where a process of competing political will is being undertaken. I return, as I said I would, to the reference that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North made to the media. Over the 50 years of the cold war, we saw that political will was as important as actual military capability. The attempts that are being made in Iraq to break the political will of coalition forces are indeed being fuelled by selective media reports. There is an answer. The Government need a media strategy to ensure that propaganda from those who sympathise with the insurgents and the terrorists is matched by hard facts from the coalition forces, ably disseminated. I am not yet convinced that the Government have fully got their act together. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can reassure me.