Liam Fox is sombre rather than sombrero. A man to reckon with, you’d have thought
– determined to fight dangerous cuts to Britain’s over-extended defence budget and an apostle of the Tory right. Which makes yesterday’s leak all the more extraordinary.
The question is not who leaked this incendiary letter, but why
Fox wrote it. The night before an important National Security Council meeting, and Fox has an important point to convey. Why not ring the Prime Minister? Go round to No.10 for chat? He is the
Secretary of State, but he has to communicate matters of confidence and competence between himself and the PM with such formality, and in such impassioned language. The idea that Fox wrote it to
leak it is preposterous. Plainly, he does not have David Cameron’s ear.
With a £40bn black hole in the MoD’s budget, cuts will have to be deeper than the proposed 10 percent. That would prove catastrophic at a time of war and Fox fears the Tories will
become even more unpopular with the forces than the previous government – no mean feat. He wrote:
‘It would be a great pity if, having championed the cause of our Armed Forces and set up the innovation of the NSC, we simply produced a cuts package. Cuts there will have to be.
Coherence, we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative.’
What is a credible narrative? Fox and CDS General Richards have crossed swords because the minister recommends that the army be cut to protect the already depleted navy. The letter
supports this analysis: he didn’t mention the army; instead, the current level of cuts would have grave effects on the ‘maritime domain’. Carriers, surface ships, subs, the fleet
air arm reconnaissance missions and amphibious gear would all go and British influence and security with them.
Fox’s reasoning is sound: an island nation cannot project power and defend its interests without a navy that can strike where it pleases. Appealing to Cameron’s humanitarian instincts
and the spirit of co-operation between DfID, the MoD and the FCO, Fox asserts: ‘We could not carry out the Sierra Leone operation again.’
Fox went to Tuesday’s briefing and asked a simple question: are we really prepared to see Defence spending reduced to this level? It was the first round of a sustained period of bargaining,
and as such his proposals were unconscionable. The NSC told him to return to his department, conduct more research into the impact of maritime cuts and have another fling with that knackered tart
Fox will ask the same question next time, searching for a favourable compromise. But he has little chance of success without the PM’s confidence. Hope that this row would sharpen
Cameron’s eyes if not his ears is thwarted by a report in the FT that Cameron has sided with Richards against
Fox to make greater immediate savings. Fox says he won’t resign and ‘make it easy for them’, but he’s stalking in resignation territory.