CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

BASING OF SUBMARINES & FRIGATES AT PLYMOUTH – 26 April 2011

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a great pleasure to participate in the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. It is also a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot as Minister in situ to respond to the debate, and I am sure that he will be as typically robust in responding in government as he was in Opposition. It is a particular pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on initiating the debate and on ranging so widely in his approach to it. We would err if we focused entirely on basing without considering – as he did – the larger issues of the state of the Royal Navy, the country’s strategic requirements from it, and the amount that the country feels it can spend on it.

I want to start, however, by taking up some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who rightly said at the beginning of her speech that events in the Middle East have rearranged the strategic furniture, as it were. She will not have been surprised by that, given that the odds are usually very great that it will come as a surprise when some sort of conflict breaks out in that way. When conflicts have yet to break out, and still more when we are already fighting in such conflicts, it therefore behoves us not to be too dogmatic and rigid as we make arrangements for the Royal Navy and, indeed, the other Armed Services.

Alison Seabeck: I am merely pointing out that such conflicts come as a surprise, but is it not always the Navy that seems to be the first responder?

Dr Lewis: I will try to be as non-partisan between the Services as possible; but, following the hon. Lady’s provocation, I cannot resist pointing out that the Navy would have been an even quicker responder to the Libyan crisis had we not decided shortly before that blew up to take our last remaining aircraft carrier out of service. I have raised that issue a number of times, particularly with the Foreign Secretary, who on the most recent occasion informed me – I am sorry that he has such a low opinion of my knowledge of things nautical – that an aircraft carrier would not have been necessary because a Tornado could not be flown from it. I am reassured to know that the Government are well aware of which aircraft can fly from aircraft carriers and which cannot, but I do not hesitate to say that if we had had an aircraft carrier in commission when the events in Libya blew up so unexpectedly, I would have bet the farm on the fact that that particular warship – an aircraft carrier – would have been the first to be dispatched to the Mediterranean in response.

It is very unwise to make decisions in peacetime, and still more unwise to make decisions when we are involved in not one but two conflicts simultaneously, that will bind us rigidly into circumstances that we might regret when the strategic situation changes as unexpectedly as it almost always does.

Let us consider the position with regard to frigates and submarines. I have never hesitated to say that the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was a well thought-out document. The problem, as we know, was that the plans it outlined were not fully funded, although at least one had the feeling that a theory was being set out which meant that some sort of balance was understood and some sort of flexibility was retained. We did not take the view that, because our circumstances in the world were more limited in terms of the interventions we could make, we should reshape our defence forces in such a way that we would be incapable of responding to an unexpected crisis as we had responded in the past.

At one point during the years of the Labour Government, a Naval Base Review was carried out. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that we, as the Shadow Defence team in Opposition, were adamant that it would be most unwise to rely on only two naval bases in the entire country, one of which would be in Scotland and the other in either Portsmouth or Devonport. In particular, we had regard to the argument put forward so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport in his introduction to the debate: if we put all our eggs in one basket, or all our ships in one or two ports – one at one end of the country and one at the far end from that – we will be in danger of the basket of eggs getting smashed or the ships getting bottled up.

We therefore argued strongly for retaining the ports at Devonport and at Portsmouth, and it would be a grave mistake to change that argument now. If we believe that it is strategically wise, strategically necessary and, I would say, strategically essential to continue to have the potential to use both Devonport and Portsmouth as naval bases in the future – I can never emphasise enough that we cannot predict the future – it follows that we must spread out our assets to ensure that both ports remain viable. I have no prejudice as to which assets should be in Portsmouth and which should be in Devonport, but some assets should be in each of the two ports.

The Labour Government took office in 1997, and when their SDR was undertaken we had a total of 35 frigates and destroyers. The deal done in the SDR was that in return for the great future promise and asset of two large aircraft carriers, the number of frigates would be modestly reduced from 35 to 32, and the number of attack submarines – nuclear-powered, but not nuclear-armed – would be reduced from 12 to 10. We know what happened over the years: the number of frigates went down successively from 35 to 32, as predicted, and then to 31 and 25. If I remember correctly, at the last count the figure had gone down to 19.

It is true that during that period six new Daring-class – Type 45 – destroyers came into play, and they are, of course, much more powerful, potent and potentially lethal, so one could argue that they are a much better deterrent than the destroyers they replaced. However, one should fight shy of getting into the position that Geoff Hoon, the then Secretary of State for Defence, got into of saying that because a new warship is so much more powerful than the warship it replaces, the number of 'platforms', as they used to say – the number of ships to the rest of us – becomes irrelevant. That is not true, because no matter how powerful a warship is, it can be in only one place at any one time. Unfortunately, but necessarily, the activities of the Royal Navy often have to take place in many places simultaneously. At the moment, we are considering what we should do in relation to events in Libya.

There is something else that slightly bothers me: I lost count of the number of times that Conservative spokesmen said in Opposition that although we could not be sure whether we would spend more money on defence until we saw what the books actually said about the economics, we would definitely keep expenditure on defence in line with the commitments undertaken. I often stood up and said that we would need either to spend more on defence or to reduce our commitments. In reality, as we know, we are very stretched indeed as a result of the ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, and we now find ourselves suddenly with an additional commitment in Libya. After some prodding, the Foreign Secretary conceded that its cost, on which I was rather aggravatingly pressing him, would be met from the Treasury Reserve; but all signs are that the commitment to a Libyan no-fly zone will not prove decisive in ousting Colonel Gaddafi, even though it may prove – and arguably has proved – effective in preventing him from initiating the wholesale mass slaughter that he was not only ruthless enough but stupid enough to announce to the world that he intended to visit on the citizens of Benghazi.

If those two statements are true – first, that the no-fly zone will not be enough to oust Gaddafi and, secondly, that it will nevertheless be effective in limiting the massacre of innocent civilians, which was our purpose for intervening – the logical consequence is that the commitment will go on for a considerable time. The Government will have to think hard about what they are prepared to spend on defence.

The Government cannot meet the costs from Treasury Reserve indefinitely. We all know what then happens: we tend to get ourselves into the situation encountered by Tony Blair, who said towards the end of his time as Prime Minister that spending on defence had remained roughly constant at 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product throughout the decade of Labour rule, but then added the crucial words, "if the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan are included". In other words, the cost of those two wars was effectively being counted as part of our basic expenditure on defence. Such a thing will always happen.

The Government must think clearly about whether to put the economic case at the top of their agenda or whether to put up there instead the ability to intervene, as we have intervened in Libya. They cannot have it both ways. Many countries, including in Europe, would doubtless love to be able to intervene to stop massacres in Benghazi, but they do not do so – or not more than minimally – because their simple view is: "Well, we’re very sorry but we’re too , too ineffective, too weak and too poor, and we cannot afford to maintain the Armed Forces necessary to do that sort of thing." That is fair enough.

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend makes a case for flexibility and options versus the economy, but it is worth remembering that we need a strong Navy with the right number of platforms to protect trade, our fuel security and our fibre-optic cables. Our economy depends on the Royal Navy.

Dr Lewis: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which takes my argument forward exactly as I intended. The key point is that the things that she outlines are constants. Those requirements of a strong Royal Navy will carry on regardless, even if we were not involved in additional conflicts. It really worries me that if we continue to be driven by every crisis that pops up in other parts of the world – whether or not we have what is commonly described as a dog in the fight – something else will have to give. Unless we see a genuine increase in resources and in the priority given to defence, if we continue to take on roles such as the worthy one of trying to intervene in Libya, something will have to give, and it is precisely the sort of core functions to which my hon. Friend adverts that may suffer.

If we cap the Defence Budget, we might have to sell off or mothball vital defence assets, or not introduce new assets that had been planned for; but I am concerned that whenever a crisis pops up in another part of the world, we want to be at the forefront and to punch above our weight. There will be only one outcome of that approach: our very limited defence resources will be used up in dealing with these ad hoc crises, which are not of our choosing, but then one day, when we face an existential threat to the security of the United Kingdom, we will not have the assets necessary to defend ourselves. I predict that there will be attempts to derail the renewal of the nuclear deterrent on the grounds that we are so stretched in other conventional areas that we cannot afford to build those submarines.

That is not a subject for this debate but, with your indulgence Mrs Brooke, may I say that I am particularly alarmed about the 'Trident Commission'? The commission is orchestrated by a well-known anti-nuclear group called the British American Security Information Council, and is funded by such anti-nuclear bodies as the Ploughshares Fund and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust; but, nevertheless, such distinguished people as two former Secretaries of State for Defence – my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and Lord Browne of Ladyton – have agreed to sit on it. What will the commission come up with? In my opinion, it certainly will not come up with a recommendation for the like-for-like replacement of Trident. What will it say? Will it say, "We’d better not have continuous at-sea deterrence," or, "We must join up with the French"? Whatever it says, I bet that the root of its argument will be the statement that we cannot afford to continue with a properly self-sufficient strategic independent nuclear deterrent. If so, future generations may have cause bitterly to regret the sort of arguments that have been put forward when we one day find ourselves vulnerable as a result of that omission.

How does that relate to base-porting? It is simple: during times of economic stringency, it is vital to conserve defence assets. Whatever final decision my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues make about what should be based at Portsmouth or Devonport, one point is vital. Something must be based at each of those two ports so that their viability is retained, because we might need those naval bases one day not simply to allow us to intervene in wars of choice, but to safeguard ourselves against an existential threat to the United Kingdom itself.