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Picture 1 Antonia Cox was Conservative candidate for Islington South and Finsbury at the general election and is author of More Bang for the Buck: how we can get better value from the defence budget, published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary – described as "thoughtful" by Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph this week – is not just that. He is a man with a plan: to park tanks on Tory lawns. Speaking on Thursday to an audience of serving and retired officers, academics and defence industry representatives, Murphy made it clear that cosy consensus, in the form of Labour support for the Government's policy of conditions-based withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2015, would go only so far.

Murphy is thinking the unthinkable. Labour dreams of replacing the Conservatives as the strongest party on defence, ripping up one of the most basic assumptions of British politics.

A Strategic Defence and Security Review in which hard choices were dictated by the deficit, and in particular by Labour's overcommitted defence equipment programme, was always going to upset those parts of the forces which lost out. And now Murphy can get a hearing for saying there were three other holes in the SDSR – Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

HMS Cumberland, which extracted so many British citizens from Benghazi, was on its way to be scrapped, to save perhaps £60m. Amid the to-ing and fro-ing over imposing no-fly zones, coinciding uncomfortably with RAF job cut announcements, more attention may be paid to the delays and technical problems with the fifth generation Joint Strike Fighters Britain is buying from the US.


Of course the "three holes" line is not fair. But it allows Labour to call for a reopening of the SDSR, which will be music to the ears of those in the forces feeling the pain of the cuts it brought.

A re-opening won't happen. It makes more sense to get on with doing the next Defence Review properly. But as a way for Labour to show it is listening to forces anger, calling for a second look is not a bad line to take.

There will have to be an apology for Labour's colossal failures to equip our armed forces properly, if the party is going to be remotely credible. But Murphy is already prepared to admit freely that money was not always spent well on defence in the Blair and Brown years. Before long, when defence cuts can no longer be viewed through the prism of Labour's mistakes, Mr Murphy will be able to pitch his current internal review of defence policy as a fresh start.

He is realistic about the limitations of our European partners' capacity, referring to unuseable tanks and undeployable conscripts. He knows that against Liam Fox, he could choose to play the man rather than the ball. And although he is committed to bipartisanship over Afghanistan withdrawal, he is prepared to justify turning up the heat on the basis that cosy consensus at Westminster means the parties forget to keep the public onside.

Through the fog of utter uselessness emitted by most of the top brass in Ed Miliband's Labour party, the outline of a political strategy for defence is emerging. As it happens, the victorious new Labour member for Barnsley Central is an ex Para major. Certainly, the Prime Minister's hints of a return to growth in defence spending need to be firmed up. For Conservatives to be outflanked by Labour on what should be a core strength would be disastrous, I believe. But it is not unthinkable.

32 comments for: Antonia Cox: We must not allow Labour to outflank us on defence

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