You might be forgiven for expecting that a Defence Secretary giving a speech on defence during an election campaign would involve an announcement about his party’s defence policy. And Michael Fallon did ‘announce’ something today, which is that the Tories would commit to four nuclear submarines, updated missiles and warheads in a renewal of the Trident continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent. This was an announcement in the sense that the Defence Secretary said it in a speech with a party-branded board behind him, but it wasn’t a surprise.
What was a surprise was that Fallon, usually one of the cannier political operators out there, managed to give a speech attacking another party’s defence policy and claiming that his Prime Minister ‘always puts defence first’ while dodging a commitment to maintaining spending at 2 per cent of GDP. When we asked Fallon about this afterwards, he listed the spending commitments Cameron had made, said the manifesto would be published next week, and that he would be speaking again on defence tomorrow.
Even more surprising was that the attack on Ed Miliband, the centrepiece of the speech, wasn’t a very good one. He is prepared to stab the country in the back, just like he stabbed his brother back, argued Fallon, but within the same speech he asked us to ‘imagine Ed Miliband limping into office aided by the crutch of the SNP’. This attempt at a John Lennon lyric contradicted the main attack. Ed Miliband the limping assassin, stabbing the country ineffectually yet dangerously in the back – perhaps even with a crutch. If Miliband was able to stab his brother in the back, doesn’t that make him ruthless, not weak?
Still more contradictory was the fact that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats disagree on the renewal of Trident, yet have managed five years of Coalition with an agreement to disagree on the issue. Of course, parties cannot agree to disagree forever (though it’s often something modern politicians would quite like to do as then they don’t need to be the ones who take the decisions), and Fallon’s argument was that you just don’t know what is going to happen in a partnership between Labour and the SNP.
Why are the Tories launching this sort of attack anyway? It gave Miliband the chance to denounce the party that should be shaking off its Nasty Party image as descending into the gutter. ‘Decent Conservatives across our country will say – come on, we’re better than this. David Cameron should be ashamed,’ he told his own event that was taking place at the same time as the Fallon speech. The public already remember that Miliband stood for the leadership when his brother wanted it too – do the Tories really need to be the ones pointing that out or can’t they let the doubt that’s already there fester in voters’ minds?
Miliband today claimed that this attack had taken place ‘because a campaign is failing’. He speaks with greater confidence than most, given how static the polls are. But the Tories could at least give the impression of being on top, rather than being so relentlessly negative.