Yesterday I had the opportunity to question the Prime Minister on the subject of Defence, with particular reference to the MOD budget and the situation in Afghanistan, during the twice-annual Liaison Committee hearing.
Firstly, I asked Gordon Brown whether during his time as Chancellor he had put heavy pressure on the Defence budget which had led to not only a fatal delay in providing the money necessary for the procurement of helicopters, but the real possibility of resignations from senior officers. This question was with reference to the evidence submitted by Lord Walker (Chief of Defence Staff 2003-2006) and Geoff Hoon (Secretary of State for Defence 1999-2005) at the ongoing Chilcot inquiry.
To this he replied that the MOD where given an overall budget and it was up to the senior officers to use it as they saw fit. This answer was in contrast to Lord Walker’s claims that the MOD had been given line by line instructions on procurement from the Treasury.
I then questioned the Prime Minister on the briefings from his office to the press regarding Defence spending. Despite a recent National Audit Office report highlighting a black hole of £6bn in the MOD budget over the next 10 years (even if there is an increase in spending of 2.7%!) No. 10 had still put out that they would maintain both the spending commitments to Afghanistan and the delivery of aircraft carriers. So I put it to Mr Brown, did he accept that this black hole was there, and that, if so, he simply couldn’t go briefing the press on maintaining spending commitments if the money wasn’t there.
He answered that the Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) fund, taken from the Treasury reserve, would meet the needs in Afghanistan.
However, he neglected to mention the MOD black hole, so I put it to him that if he planned to ring fence Health, Education and International Development (as he had stated earlier, under questioning from Peter Luff) what was going to be done about the £6bn shortfall.
He once again reiterated that Afghanistan would be covered by the UOR and that regarding the Defence budget, there would be a Strategic Defence Review in due course, a white paper and a debate about future defence commitments.
Finally, I pushed him on whether he was still fully committed to the procurement of the aircraft carriers. This he did confirm, but emphasised that the priority was to make sure that the mission in Afghanistan was properly financed.
Although perhaps not having always been the case, it was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister emphasising the commitment to Afghanistan as his number one priority. However, his acceptance that there would be a Strategic Review in due course demonstrated that his briefing of the press about maintaining defence commitments across the board was more about scoring political points. After all, one could promise a whole raft of spending prior to the election if one knows that there will be a Strategic Spending Review soon after the election