Things have come to a pretty pass when the two party spokespeople who experience the worst drubbing in a debate are the current Defence Secretary and the Green party representative.
In today’s Daily Politics defence debate Rebecca Johnson ended up, after some considerable flapping and obfuscation, disowning a section of the Green party’s website which said membership of a jihadi organisation shouldn’t be illegal. And Michael Fallon repeatedly refused to say that the Tories would support Labour in a vote on Trident renewal, then struggled under tough questions about the Tory failure to commit to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Vernon Coaker also dodged questions on Labour’s own commitment to defence spending.
Johnson eventually said she ‘personally’ disowned the statement on the Green website that it should not be a crime to be a member of a jihadi organisation or have sympathy with its aims if they don’t take part in violence.
‘Our manifesto is the policies on which we are standing in this… personally, yes, fortunately I’m part of a party that allows us to disagree with certain elements and to seek to change them.’
But the Greens don’t really need to worry all that much about whether they are impressive in a defence debate. The Tories may feel there are ‘no votes’ in defence, but they are talking about it more in relation to a threat from the SNP. And one of those key lines is that a partnership between those two parties would lead to Labour either scaling back or scrapping Trident.
Fallon jumped in to a question about Trident, asking Vernon Coaker the following:
Fallon: How can you get renewal of Trident if you are a minority Labour government, you can’t get power on your own, you’re being propped up by the SNP, how can you possibly get it through when Nicola Sturgeon is saying it is an absolute red line?
Coaker: We will not negotiate on the national security…
Fallon: If you’re a minority government, you’d have to.
Fallon: Because you wouldn’t be able to get it through.
Coaker: Well, how would you vote?
Fallon: Look, we cannot leave…
Andrew Neil: Couldn’t a Labour government count on the Conservatives to get Trident through?
Fallon: You want to leave our nuclear defence to the uncertainty of a 10 o’clock vote, not knowing which MPs are going to vote which way, cobbled together with some deal with the SNP…
Coaker: Well which way would the Conservatives vote?
Neil: Well hold on, we’ll find out from Angus Robertson in a minute, but let’s accept that they couldn’t expect the support of the SNP, I think that’s pretty clear, as we will find out in a second. Why though could a minority Labour government not count on the support of the Conservatives?
Fallon: Because then you’d have uncertainty.
Everyone else: You wouldn’t have uncertainty if you vote for it.
Fallon: The only way to be absolutely sure about our nuclear defence is to vote Conservative…
Neil: Why would you not support a Labour government that was going to renew Trident?
Fallon: Our aim in this election is to have a majority Conservative government where you don’t have that question.
Neil: But if you lose the election… you are avoiding the question Michael Fallon, why would the Conservatives not support a minority Labour government on Trident?
Fallon: The country needs to avoid that question by the certainty of a Conservative government that is absolutely committed, we can’t have this confusion or uncertainty…
This was a weird way of answering a question. Of course the Tories would vote with Labour on Trident. But to say so would make their attack line on this completely redundant. So the Conservatives must pretend that they might not. And the party gives the appearance of putting Trident at risk for the sake of politicking about a deal between Labour and the SNP.
P.S. For what it’s worth, my hunch is that this would not be the way Fallon would play things. He is a cannier political operator than that, but he is also a loyal minister who is quite happy to take one for the team, and I suspect that the team have given him this line on Trident. Similarly, I suspect he would love to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, but has been constrained by his party hierarchy. If my hunch is correct, Fireman Fallon has been very ill-used indeed by his party in this campaign.