By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday saw a debate in the Commons on the recent Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Several Conservative MPs took the opportunity to raise questions about the deal signed this week between David Cameron and President Sarkozy for Britain and France to share aircraft carriers.
"In relation to the French-UK treaties that were signed this week, I am in no doubt that they are a good thing, and that we are moving in the right direction. I have a reservation relating to the aircraft carriers, but I repeat that the treaties are a good thing. Actually, I believe that we should go further and give reality to the treaties, so that the warm words that they contain might be translated into tangible progress in training, doctrine, equipment-sharing, acquisition and research with our good friends and allies, the French. My reservation about the aircraft carriers, however, has been wrongly depicted as some great showdown between myself and the Secretary of State. I shall explain my reservation.
"When the SDSR was announced last month, the Prime Minister said of the aircraft carriers: "We will build both carriers, but hold one in extended readiness." And we all know that "extended readiness" in Ministry of Defence-speak means exactly the reverse. But, in the press conference after the signing of the treaties this week, my right hon. Friend referred to our "carrier". As I understand it, we have not yet decided to sell one of the two carriers, and I hope that we do not. To talk of our "carrier" might be to build an expectation that we shall definitely mothball and almost certainly sell the other one. It is pre-empting a discussion that needs to take place much later, when we can see the economic circumstances of this country and, more importantly, the threats against us.
"Two carriers would be a good idea, and no carriers would be a fairly good idea, but one carrier? Surely not. Every time it went into refit would we not prove to the Treasury that we were able to struggle on without it? Furthermore, are we really yet close enough to the French position that we can utterly rely on being allowed to use theirs? The answer is no, not yet. Our deployment to Iraq took place in the last decade. I do not say that we never will be close enough to the French, because I hope and expect that at some stage in the reasonably near future we shall, but it will come about only after a decent length of time operating alongside them, and after the treaties have been given detail, teeth and funding, none of which has yet happened.
"How about another idea? How about deciding between the two of our countries that the French will contribute to the cost of the second carrier and, in return, have the right to use it when their carrier is in refit? That would mean that the two countries had three operational carriers between them, which should surely be acceptable. Having said all that, let me repeat that the French treaties are, in the words of "1066 and All That", a "Good Thing".
"My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) has done a wonderful job as Chair of the Defence Committee – he is shaping up to be a superb Chair – in questioning the decision on the future shape of the carrier fleet. I am not a Francosceptic; I am a huge Francophile. Both my parents were brought up in France, I went to a French school, and I speak French, so I am all in favour of every kind of co-operation with the French, but… Hon. Members and the public are right to be wary about such co-operation. The public do not really understand – and why should they? – a lot of these details about joint strike fighters, Typhoons and Tornadoes. However, they can visualise aircraft carriers without aircraft, and they can visualise sharing an aircraft carrier with the French, and they do not like it – and they are wise not to like it. We all know what would have happened had we been sharing an aircraft carrier with the French during the Falklands war or the Iraq war."
"I do not doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful idea to have increased co-operation with the French on procurement and to work together more closely, but on this basis it is an extremely dangerous decision. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire was right. There is no way in this debate that we can change the decision on the Ark Royal, the Harriers or Nimrod, and I do not think that I will still be in this Chamber when the two aircraft carriers retire, because I will be about 120. However, for the next 10 years, we can together mount a campaign. Its nature must be clear: that we would make ourselves ridiculous, as one of the world's greatest maritime nations, if we built the greatest and most powerful ships we have ever constructed and then sold one of them to India, Brazil or elsewhere.
"As my right hon. Friend said, extended readiness is not good enough. Our commitment, as with Trident, must be that at all times an aircraft carrier will be available. That means that we must keep our two aircraft carriers and ensure that when one goes in for a refit, the other is available."