Blair under fire from own side on army cuts

#1
Damn, thought I had posted this already but I dont see it - misfire! :oops: . No time to add comment again but there is lots of interest in this lead story in today's Scotsman, including latest on the timing of the announcement etc. Source http://news.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=1425762004

Tue 14 Dec 2004
Blair under fire from own side on army cuts

GETHIN CHAMBERLAIN AND JAMES KIRKUP

Key points
• Defence committee chairman attacks army cuts as 'unwise'
• Bruce George MP says cash to save regiments a matter of political will
• MoD and Downing Street wrangle over timing of announcement on cuts

Key quote
"I am far from convinced that what the government is proposing is valid. The impression I have is that it would be profoundly unwise to cut the size of the army" - Bruce George, MP

Story in full THE government would be "profoundly unwise" to cut the size of the army at a time when it is already grossly overstretched and with a general election looming, the chairman of the Commons defence select committee warned yesterday.

In an outspoken attack on his own party’s plans, Bruce George, a normally loyal Labour back-bencher, warned that cutting the size of the army and doing away with popular local regiments risked provoking resentment among voters.

And despite the government’s insistence that the decision on where the axe will fall has been left to the military, Mr George said finding the cash to stave off the worst of the cuts was a matter of political will.

The Labour MP’s attack gives an indication of the depth of feeling at Westminster over the proposed cuts.

The announcement on which regiments will be axed and which will be merged is expected to be made later this week. With the final Black Watch soldiers arriving back in Britain yesterday from Iraq, the government is now spared the embarrassment of announcing the end of the regiment while it is still in the firing line.

But the timing of the announcement was still the subject of Whitehall wrangling last night. While Ministry of Defence sources said they expected to make a statement on Thursday, Downing Street was understood to be considering bringing forward the announcement to tomorrow.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is due to fly to Brussels for a European Union summit on Thursday. Some Downing Street officials were worried that announcing the mergers on the same day could lead to allegations that the government was trying to bury bad news, or that the Prime Minister was not focused on the fate of the regiments.

Political calculations over the timing of the controversial announcement had already put paid to plans by General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the army, to brief his troops on the changes yesterday.

The latest vacillations have served to fuel Gen Jackson’s apparent anger over the shifting timetable. One military source last night said that the general was "not a happy badger".

Mr George, - whose own constituency, Walsall South, is home to the threatened Staffordshire Regiment - pulled no punches. "I am far from convinced that what the government is proposing is valid," he said. "The impression I have is that it would be profoundly unwise to cut the size of the army. The demands upon them are heavier than even the present number can cope with.

"To lop off another 1,500 is folly. There is a stronger argument for increasing the size of the army by 5,000 to 10,000. We are grossly overstretched at the moment."

He questioned how the army would be expected to cope if they were faced with another firefighters’ strike or a situation such as the foot-and-mouth crisis. He also voiced concern about the Territorial Army, which has provided thousands of soldiers to serve in Iraq and other hotspots.

"The TA is reaching breaking point," he said. "When these people joined the TA they didn’t expect to spend months and months in Afghanistan and Bosnia and Iraq and there is a limit to what employers will tolerate."

He cautioned that the timing of the cuts, coming so close to a general election, could have serious political repercussions.

"At a political level, I would have thought that six months before an election you don’t bust the regiments," he said.

"I cannot see the purpose of inflaming opposition by eliminating regiments - I really can’t see the advantages of provoking resentment."

Senior figures in the army - including Gen Jackson - have made it clear that the cut of four infantry battalions is undesirable and that the move has been forced upon them by the Treasury’s refusal to free up more funds for the armed forces.

Yesterday Mr George suggested that the fate of the regiments depended on whether Tony Blair’s government had the political will to find the cash to save them. "We live in a system where political pressure can yield the right result," he said. "They will find the money from somewhere - it is a matter of political will."

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is expected to make a Commons statement this week confirming details of the plans to cut the number of infantry battalions from 40 to 36.

Single battalion regiments such as the Black Watch are expected to be merged into other regiments, though they may keep their cap badges and identities within the new structure.

Mr George argued that the government’s chosen formula was unnecessary. "If they think that leaving them with a cap badge and a museum will retain a regimental spirit, they are wrong," the defence committee chairman said.

He suggested that the regiments should be grouped together into a broader brigade structure to enable them to retain their individual identities, rather than moving to the system of super-regiments that the MoD is proposing: "That would be a nonsense," he said.
Home for Christmas from the Sunni Triangle

THE last contingent of Black Watch soldiers arrived back in Britain yesterday after their six-month tour of Iraq.

The troops, who began arriving home on Friday, are due to go on holiday for four weeks from tomorrow evening before returning to their current base at Warminster in Wiltshire.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said last night: "The main body came back on Saturday morning and these guys were the rear party.

"They were sent over as a reserve battalion and were not expected to do much - but they did quite a lot."

Five soldiers were killed during a controversial posting to Camp Dogwood, about 30 miles south-east of Baghdad, in a militant hotspot known as the Sunni Triangle. Tony Blair had promised the troops would be "home for Christmas".
 
#2
Gun cleared! :oops:

Editorial from today's Scotsman http://news.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=1426372004

Tue 14 Dec 2004

Speaking out against army cuts

AHEAD of an imminent announcement on the fate of the Scottish regiments and the Black Watch in particular, the public is none the wiser as to why such amalgamations are considered so necessary. If it is "simply" a question of cost, what exactly is the rationale? Where is the cost-benefit analysis that shows how resources would be deployed more efficiently?

Bruce George, chairman of the powerful Commons defence select committee, ought to know. He is a normally-loyal Labour backbencher, and one to whom the public would be expected to turn for a defence of the proposed economies. But yesterday he warned that it would be "profoundly unwise" to cut the size of the army when it is already overstretched and with an election looming.

To this line of attack, the government’s response has been that the decision has been left to the military. But this does not let it off the hook at all. As Mr George retorts, finding the cash to stave off the worst of the cuts is a matter of political will. Certainly, it is political rather than economic considerations that explain all the vacillation over the timing of the announcement. Little wonder that General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the army, is said to be deeply unhappy over the ever-shifting timetable.

If Mr George, occupying the position that he does, is "far from convinced that what the government is proposing is valid", what makes the government think it can convince the rest of us? Mr George expressed views that are widely shared by millions about this entire exercise: that "it would be profoundly unwise to cut the size of the army ... To lop off another 1,500 is folly. There is a stronger argument for increasing the size of the army by 5,000 to 10,000. We are grossly overstretched at the moment".

The line from the Ministry of Defence is that economies have to be made. But the problem with this rationale is its source. The MoD has been one of the most profligate government departments in the land, and its record on value for money is appalling. It has consistently defended the purchase of the Eurofighter, a project whose costs have soared and whose end-product has been widely criticised for its obsolescence, being more suited to the Cold War than modern warfare. Yet Britain will this week place an order for 89 Eurofighters after months of delay and wrangling on the controversial plane programme. This, on top of other examples of waste, fuel public suspicion that the army regiments are the scapegoat. One would like to think, given the exemplary service the Black Watch has rendered, that blood runs thicker than money in Whitehall. Sadly, no such recognition is in sight.
 

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