In an article for today’s Telegraph, Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox reviews the whole saga of the capture of the fifteen Royal Navy sailors. He ends by making what (I think) are his strongest criticisms of the fact that, for the second time, Iran was able to kidnap British military personnel:
"The Revolutionary Guards should not have been allowed to capture our personnel, and the fact that this happened for the second time in three years presents an even greater cause for concern. The sailors and Marines were simply outnumbered and outgunned: this situation is one that the Government must explain. It showed an inability to learn from the previous incident in 2004, and that is why we are calling for an official inquiry."
Dr Fox also presses the point that William Hague started to make yesterday that Downing Street must have known something about this sorry episode:
"It is also unbelievable that the Defence Secretary did not have contact with the Prime Minister or Number 10 until Monday, and that the PM was aware of the decision on Sunday, but did not seek to intervene. Can it really be the case that the Defence Secretary was not in touch with any officials from Number 10 before Monday?"
For Dr Fox the Government’s whole approach to the armed forces is in tatters. He mentions massive overstretch, poor strategic planning of operations and inadequate care of service personnel and their families. He concludes:
"This whole sorry saga exposes the worst characteristics of this Labour Government. The fact that the incident happened in the first place exposes its unwillingness to learn from its mistakes and its enormous complacency in the way in which it decides how our forces are deployed. The media focus once again exposes its obsession with headlines, its inability to look ahead and its total insensitivity to the Armed Forces. Britain’s Armed Forces have a deserved reputation for being the best in the world. This reputation is earned through their values of dignity and duty, and loyalty to the elected government of the day. Labour doesn’t understand this – our country needs a government that does."
Dr Fox has handled this whole business very well. Unlike Des Browne he immediately knew that the sale of the sailors’ stories was wrong (as ConservativeHome reported early on Easter Sunday). But the whole Conservative effort has been good. Former Defence Secretaries Michael Heseltine, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo have all lined up to expose the Government’s manifest failings on this issue. It’s been the Opposition working at its best. The crucial next stage of the operation will come on Monday when the Defence Secretary stands before MPs and answers the questions that Dr Fox and others have raised. If he fails to answer them adequately that will be the time to call for him to go. The international standing of the British military probably needs nothing less.