Defence procurement suits contractors not soldiers

Conservative MP Douglas Carswell calls on the coalition to take action on defence procurement, and points out the flaws in the current policy.

Douglas Carswell is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Clacton

An early cheerleader for coalition government last May, I hoped it would allow the Conservative party to change for the better. The search for common ground with Clegg and co would strengthen the hand of those of us advocating a new model Toryism, based on localism and the dispersal of power.

If coalition means compromise, I saw the trade offs as a chance to fuse direct democracy Conservative ideas with pragmatic Lib Dem thinking (such as those set out in the oft-quoted, less often read, Orange Book). One year on, I fear we’ve done something a little different – and nowhere is this more the case than with defence.

Conservatives have traditionally had a strong defence commitment – even if they’ve been a little slow to see that simply spending more is not enough. More ambivalent about large scale defence projects, the Lib Dems seemed to clock that spending more money at the behest of large defence contractors is not the same thing as giving our armed forces the kit they need.

Lib Dem spokesmen, during those endless years of opposition, spoke out against enormously wasteful procurement projects. They pointed out the cosy relationship between defence contractors and the Ministry of Defence, and demanded we shut the revolving door.

A Liberal Conservative defence policy ought, therefore, to marry traditional Tory support for defence, with the Lib Dems’ desire to overhaul the way we spend the defence budget. We seem we have managed to do almost the opposite. The government seems ambivalent about defence spending and at the same time, prepared to carry on spending what money we do have appallingly badly. Despite being the fourth highest spending military power in the world, Britain’s ability to project military might is hamstrung by the way it spends its budget.

Instead of buying the best kit in the world that our armed forces need, we seem to buy kit that it suits the large contractors to sell. Using bogus arguments about jobs and “sovereign supply”, we run a protectionist, mercantile defence industry that is simply not much good at converting financial muscle into military punch.

If you think I overstate my case, ponder this: while China – which spends approximately the same on defence that we do – launches a deep water fleet and stealth bombing capability, we’ve just axed our last few dozen harriers.

The coalition talks as if they are willing to scrap the disastrous Defence Industrial Strategy. Yet we remain light years away from the kind of transparent off-the-shelf procurement, with open competition, that we need to ensure that we spend our defence budget wisely. Rather than see it as their role to justify appalling mismanagement inside the MoD, coalition ministers ought to apply liberal principles of accountability and open competition to make sure it is at last spent wisely.

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