Remember when I said, a couple of months ago, that Defence is a simmering problem that could boil over for Cameron? Well, the temperature has risen a few extra degrees Celsius today. The Times has got its hands on a set of documents (£) which, it is claimed, “reveal friction between the Ministry of Defence and Downing Street over how the full-time Army should be shrunk to an affordable size”. Apparently, when it comes to those job losses anticipated for next year, Downing Street would prefer mass retirements and other voluntary departures. The military chiefs, however, want to do things their own way.
Tension between the Cameroonian generals and the actual generals is no new thing – as this old post of mine makes clear. What makes this latest story noteworthy is the notion that, as an Army source tells the Times, “David Cameron is increasingly sensitive to the bad publicity that surrounded soldiers losing their jobs.” This certainly tallies with conversations I’ve had with various Downingstreetians. It’s almost as though a switch has been flicked: they suddenly realise how emotive all this is, and how it can mobilise Tory MPs against the Government, as well as potentially push some voters towards UKIP. Perhaps it was that protest during Philip Hammond’s conference speech that did it.
Which is why I say, periodically, that Defence is worth keeping an eye on. We could well see a situation analogous to the NHS earlier in this Parliament: the Tories enter the next election promising to protect the Defence budget as best they can, but it doesn’t do them any political good because of wider misgivings about their record and intentions. What was it Churchill said, again? Ah, yes: “In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.”