There are many quite understandable reasons for not promising to protect the defence budget. Some are pragmatic: there’s not much room in Whitehall for more budgets to be protected once you take into account those that already are. Some are theoretical, including the argument Clare Short advanced on Newsnight yesterday, which is that if your economy grows, you have to spend more on defence in order to keep meeting the target of 2 per cent of GDP set by NATO, and that has nothing to do with whether you need to increase spending but with statistical releases from the ONS.
But whatever the good arguments, they aren’t being made nearly as often by ministers as the blunders and insults are flowing towards those who argue in favour of a 2 per cent target. First there was Philip Hammond’s line to Tory MPs that there are ‘no votes in defence’. That at least had the virtue of being close to the truth. But yesterday’s pop by David Cameron at former defence top brass was far worse.
The Prime Minister said this to LBC when he was asked about the complaints from senior figures:
‘Obviously, they have their own book to talk – sometimes quite literally a book to talk – and sometimes they just want to make their views known.’
The Today programme also featured an interview with a former adviser to Liam Fox, who said defence chiefs had been assured that the budget would increase as a way of stopping them resigning over cuts at the time. If true, that is classic short-termism on the part of Number 10.
All of this begs the question of whether the Tories want a massive row over defence. They couldn’t have handled the current stand-off over the budget any better if they did want to antagonise people worried about a traditionally Tory policy area.