Tory frontbench spokesman brands defence minister a “turncoat”

April 20, 2009 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

quentindavies

Junior defence minister Quentin Davies

by Tony Grew

A Conservative MP caught the attention of Deputy Speaker Michael Lord during this afternoon’s debate on defence procurement when he called junior minister Quentin Davies a “turncoat.”

The debate was also notable for confusion over acronyms, with the same Tory member, Gerald Howarth, later admitting he “hadn’t a clue” what CVRT stands for.

It is in fact a Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked).

Mr Howarth was in combative mood earlier in the debate when Mr Davies, who defected from the Tories in 2007 and was appointed a junior defence minister by Gordon Brown last year, rose to make a point.

“Oh, I see that the turncoat wishes to intervene. I give way to the turncoat,” he said.

Deputy Speaker Michael Lord intervened.

“Order. We can conduct this debate without that sort of expression. I ask the hon. Gentleman to have second thoughts and withdraw that remark.”

Mr Howarth said his remarks were merely “friendly banter Mr. Deputy Speaker, and in the spirit of friendly banter I withdraw any offence that might have been attached to my remark.”

Mr Davies said he was not offended, and went on to accuse Mr Howarth of being “confused.”

“My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces was talking about the core defence budget, which is rising at 1.5 per cent. in real terms, beyond inflation, in contrast to the disgraceful record of the last Conservative Administration.

“That has nothing to do with the funding of the wars, conflicts and campaigns, which comes out of the reserve and is in addition to the core defence programme.

“The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) should at least understand that distinction.

Mr. Howarth seemed amused by the tone of the junior minister’s intervention.

“That was absolutely magnificent and wonderful.

“The hon. Gentleman never made such accusations about his own side when he was sitting on the Conservative Benches.

“Indeed, I recall his many Rottweiler-style attacks on the Labour party at the time.

“He is obviously happier at home with the Labour party now, although he is looking rather discomfited.”

Mr. Davies responded that he had criticised the last Tory government while he was a Conservative MP, which was greeted with a shout of “rubbish!”

The Deputy Speaker told MPs to “calm down a little; we should turn to discussing the current procurement position.”

Later in the debate Mr Howarth fell foul of the acronyms that litter any discussion of defence matters.

“Mention has been made of the inconsistency between the Ministry of Defence’s core programme and the urgent operational requirements, which I accept are essential if we are to protect the lives of our servicemen and women,” he said.

“But where is the strategy for Land Systems to replace a fleet of 35 to 40-year-old CVRT armoured fighting vehicles? I haven’t a clue what CVRT stands for. I think that it is—”

The Deputy Speaker suggested that “If the hon. Gentleman is not sure, I am sure that the House is mystified—and those outside the House even more so. Perhaps he can seek advice.”

As members shouted “Come on, Gerald, what are you going to do?” Mr Howarth responded:

“I think I am going to phone a friend, actually.

“I am looking around for my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who might bail me out. CVRT? I know that the “T” bit is “Tracked”.

“Forgive me; I am sorry about this failure. Anyway, they are armoured fighting vehicles that are 35 to 40 years old, and I believe that the Department needs a strategy.

“The Minister mentioned new “dog”-type equipment—further to confuse us all—that is being introduced: Coyotes, Wolfhounds and goodness knows what. I do not believe that this is a substitute for a strategy; it is a strategy that we need.”

Earlier Armed Forces minister Bob Ainsworth told the House:

“High-end equipment, such as that which we have been talking about, can be used very effectively across the spectrum of conflict.

“That is borne out by the experience of current operations. The armed forces are using equipment designed with very different theatres in mind for roles for which they were not originally intended.

“Such equipment includes the Tornado, which was bought as a deep-attack bomber but is employed in Iraq for close air support and will soon perform the same role in Afghanistan.

“However, making the right decisions about the equipment that we need is only one side of the equation. The other side involves ensuring that when we go on to procure equipment, we procure it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“Delivering equipment programmes has always been challenging. In 1958, the then Ministry of Supply estimated that defence equipment cost 2.8 times as much as forecast, so delays, slippages and cost overruns are nothing new, nor are these difficulties something with which the UK alone struggles.”

Mr Ainsworth said the government has on order “six Type 45 destroyers. They are phenomenally capable ships.

“We have Astute, and the current Type 23 and Type 22 frigates, which will continue to provide further anti-submarine capability until the future surface combatant comes on stream.

“We have not taken a decision at this stage about numbers for the future surface combatant, but that will be needed to provide the carrier task force capability, as well as the other functions that those ships will have to undertake.”

Mr Howarth, a shadow defence minister, claimed that the government is responsible for “the shambles to which they have reduced this country” and claimed the Ministry of Defence is in a state of chaos.

“The Royal Air Force and the Army are each short of about 2,500 people, equipment in theatre is being hammered at a rate never originally envisaged, and the Treasury is clamouring for more cuts even as the nation contemplates committing nearly 1,000 more hard-pressed servicemen and women to Afghanistan.

“So dire is the position that the Ministry of Defence has been forced to agree that some UOR—urgent operational requirements—costs, until recently met wholly from the Treasury’s contingency reserve fund, will in future have to be accounted for in the main MOD core budget.”

Mr Ainsworth challenged his Tory shadow to guarantee the same level of spending on defence if the Conservatives took office.

Mr Howarth said the Conservatives “will not be held accountable for the carnage that they are going to leave behind for us to pick up and put right in 2010.

“I can tell him about our own financial proposals. We have made it absolutely clear that if we had a Conservative Chancellor proposing the Budget on Wednesday, any cuts in public expenditure this year would exclude defence as an area for cuts.

“Unfortunately, as each month unfolds the state of the British economy is exposed as being worse and worse and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the Prime Minister, who is responsible for this catastrophe, continues to preside over a failing Government.

“Bring on the general election, and then we will tell the Minister exactly what we propose to do.”

Mr Howarth listed a range of threats to the United Kingdom.

“If the cold war taught us anything, it was the critical importance of deterrence.

“Since our last defence procurement debate, Russia launched with complete impunity an aggressive attack on Georgia, a sovereign state; troops have been deployed to the Arctic where Russia has staked a claim to 460,000 square miles of territory that scientists believe could prove rich in oil and gas deposits; and we have seen a resumption of incursions into UK airspace.

“Between now and 2015, Russia will spend more than $200 billion upgrading its forces.

“Then there is Iran and the particular threat of the country acquiring nuclear weapons, which could be followed by nuclear proliferation and regional arms races.

“Then there is the increasing threat to our sea lanes by Somali pirates and there are also cyber-threats, which need to be taken very seriously indeed.”

Former Labour cabinet minister Gavin Strang made the case for the aerospace industry, calling it a “huge British success story.”

“I cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is that the Government maintain their support for the Eurofighter Typhoon. Let us be clear: some of the reports we have heard have not been very encouraging.

“There have been suggestions that there would be some weakening in Government support. I strongly urge the Government not to go down that road.

“We have a successful area and a successful plane, and we know that we need to encourage and nourish those capabilities in companies throughout the country, so it is vital that we maintain our commitment.”

For the Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie branded the Government’s defence procurement strategy as “characterised by overblown commitments to the thousands of workers in dockyards and factories across the United Kingdom.

“As with their commitments in regard to public services, education and the health service, their delivery has fallen well short of expectations. I suppose that it is much better than the delivery under the Tory years, but that is not saying much. There have been extensive delays, overruns and cuts, and the workers have been let down badly by the present Government.

“Let me give some examples. Although 12 type 45 destroyers were promised, the number has been halved to six, yet the costs have risen dramatically.

“The Astute submarine is £1 billion over budget. The Chinook conversion, initiated by the Conservatives, will be delayed by up to nine years, with an extra cost of £200 million. The Nimrod MRA4 is eight years behind schedule and £1 billion over budget, which is leaving dangerous planes in the air and costing lives.

“We have heard much about FRES, the future rapid effect system. We have spent an absolute fortune on it—some £132 million—but there has been no output whatsoever as a result.”

Mr Rennie said the government had cut procurement spending “from £900 million to about £635 million, at a time when we still have insufficient equipment, including helicopters, in Afghanistan.

“Given that the Prime Minister himself has indicated that we will be sending more troops to Afghanistan, there is clearly a longer-term commitment.

“Does the Minister believe that we now have enough equipment in Iraq for him to be able to slash the budget—it would be incredible if he did—or is this another example of the military covenant’s being stretched to breaking point, and the Government’s not backing up the military commitments that our troops are required to deliver with the necessary equipment to support them in conflict?”

Mr Rennie urged the government to “look more fundamentally at European defence co-operation.”

Nicholas Soames, a defence minister under John Major, accused the government of cutting “about a fifth” of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service’s total fleet.

“Furthermore, frigate and destroyer numbers have fallen from 35 to 25, which is way below what the strategic defence review said was the minimum requirement to carry out the standing tasks of the Royal Navy, and the number is due to fall to 23.

“The number of attack submarines has been cut from 12 to eight, and will fall to seven. That is a really catastrophic situation for a maritime power—an island—that is dependent on keeping the sea lanes open.

“If we faced a terrible difficulty, we would have to be able to secure our sea lanes, but the truth is that we could not secure anything.

“We are now a very minor sea power with some wonderful people and very good but very small ships. We also have some terrible gaps. There is a serious problem.

“We have done what we have done throughout so much of our procurement—we have bought equipment that still lives in the cold war era.

“The Daring class radars are some of the most sophisticated and powerful in the world; they can enable a golf ball to be shot down at 700 miles or something. That is terribly useful, but it will not be necessary.

“We need many smaller ships capable of dealing with such events as the pirate operations in the lower gulf. There is no point in sending a Daring class destroyer to deal with Somali pirates—we could blow them out of the water with a .50 Browning.

“We would not need a fully gunned-up warship. The Danes have a good range of ships, which are much smaller and lightly armed. They carry good weapons and small crews and can operate pretty much anywhere in the world. We need such ships for the next generation of warfare.”

Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas raised the sceptre of cyber warfare, which she described as “an anoraky subject.”

“It has interested the European Security and Defence Assembly for the simple reason that that body has representatives from Estonia, which, if colleagues do not know, faced a complete takeover of the country’s internet system approximately two years ago, not by an individual but through concerted action by several individuals throughout the world.

“The Government were literally brought to a standstill in one day. Every Department, including the military Department, was affected.

“I have been assured that the UK could never suffer such an assault.

“However, the event raised several issues and I have asked Defence Ministers questions about that. We have not yet defined the difference between a cyber threat, cyber warfare and cyber terrorism. I do not know whether they are the same, but there is no definition and we need one because the current response is country-specific.

“Again, it is an ideal matter for collaborative working in a European context, not least because we share some major telecommunications networks. We are also equally sophisticated in the technology that we have developed.”

Tory MP Ben Wallace, “a former soldier, and a former civil servant,” told the House that “what we really need is clarity in our defence strategy.

“We need clarity in our foreign policy, and we need clarity in what the British interest is and where it lies.

“The Americans are always 100 per cent. sure about what the American interest is, but I often question, certainly at the fag end of this Government, whether there is a clear definition of the British interest.

“Just as there was clarity in the defence industrial strategy—that strategy paper gave us great hope—if we have clarity on what we want to procure, where we want to go and what Britain’s interest is, we will go some way towards helping the defence procurement problem that every Government face.”

Winding up the debate for the government, Quentin Davies said that there had been “a lot of extremely well-informed contributions. A certain amount of egregious nonsense has been spoken as well.”

The minister said he was “sorry to say that the debate began with a personal attack on me, and an attack on the Government’s record.

“It was a bit rich for the Conservatives to start talking about the apparent failures of this Government in the field of defence procurement, given that we have an extremely proud record and have done so much in relation to armoured vehicles, naval systems and air power—to which I have just referred—and given their dismal record when they were last in power.

“They presided over some of the greatest procurement disasters incurred not just in this country but, probably, anywhere. What about Annington Homes? What about the Chinook? How utterly incompetent it was to place that contract without asking where the airworthiness certificates would come from! What about Nimrod?

“In every business school it is cited as an example of a bad procurement contract.

“The Tory party was responsible for those failures. It is a bit rich! We have had to clear up the mess; we have inherited the legacy of Tory incompetence.

“It was claimed that I did not say the same when I was a Tory myself—sadly and mistakenly. I am proud to have changed my coat now, by the way, and if the hon. Member for Aldershot calls me a turncoat every day, I shall be delighted.

“I am wearing the right coat. I am wearing the coat of the party that now represents all the things that I have believed in for as long as I have been in politics.”

Mr Davies spent several more minutes listing the failures of the last Conservative government. With moments to go before the end of the debate, Nicholas Soames rose to his feet.

“On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to speak such utter rubbish at the end of an important debate?”

Mr Speaker replied: “It is in order for hon. Members to stay in order, and the hon. Gentleman concerned was in order.”

After more than five and a half hours, the House moved on to other business.

Read the full debate here.

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