Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Labour Does Defence Cuts(ish): Part One

(MoD Men: Robertson (891), Hoon (2034), Reid (364), Browne (882), Hutton (245), Ainsworth(340)*)

Under normal circumstances, political U-turns are mocked by political opponents and denied by the U-turnee. Occasionally, U-turns are emblematic of a new leaf - classically, Labour's repudiation of Clause IV under Blair in 1994 - and last week we saw something unusual; a Labour shadow Minister in favour of spending cuts, and in particular, defence cuts. Step forward, Jim Murphy MP.

I'll deal with the specifics of the proposed Labour cuts in a future post - suffice to say, they are a long way from both a mea culpa for the damage of the unfunded promises of the Labour 1997-2010 years, but they are a start for Labour to make a credible economic policy.

But in reviewing Labour's record, I thought it would be fun to look at how long Labour's Secretaries of State for Defence were actually in office, and compare that with their Tory predecessors under Margaret Thatcher and John Major - ie, back to 1979. The point is that there is such a steep learning curve as a Secretary of State - especially for those with little or no background in defence - that the first six months or so Ministers will be learning as much as doing, with being really effective from about six months in.

So how did they do?

Two things are striking: first, Geoff Hoon's five-and-a-half years in office was remarkably - and abnormally - long. It wasn't a complete triumph, as Hoon presided over the mini Defence Review known as the "New Chapter" to the 1998 SDSR post the terrorist attacks of 9/11 - and then allowed the UK's forces to become completely over-stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst presiding over the disastrous procurement performance that would come to dominate the MoD's budget (and with it, everything else.)

Second, once you take Hoon out of the equation, Labour Defence Secretaries  served for an average of 65 weeks - suggesting that they may have had about six months cognizant of the issues to drive the change required. (John Reid is probably the honourable exception as he had a good defence background in opposition, but he was still in post for only a year, meaning that he wasn't about long enough to deliver change.) Worse, as the budgets reached breaking point under Gordon Brown's premiership, he was keeping his Defence Secretaries in place for about half the historical average - as well in Bob Ainsworth having picked a singularly unimpressive Secretary of State. More damningly, as Ainsworth was the only one who was promoted from inside MoD, he should have had the best handle on the Departmental challenges, but he was probably the poorest of the lot.

So what does this mean? Possibly not much, but it does point to the comparative lack of importance and oversight that the two Labour governments gave to ministerial stability after George Robertson got sent off to run NATO. And that lack of consistent leadership from the top bears much of the responsibility for the mess that MoD was in by the 2010 Election.

*Number of days in office.

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