Defence review sketch: Defending the indefensible

At the heart of the spending review is a proposition so daft no competent person could ever countenance it. This was Westminster at its worst.

Ian Dunt

Sometimes your brain rejects the sights before your eyes in the way you might dismiss a particularly ludicrous plot in an action film. Political incompetence, a long-running tradition in this country, tends to make the phenomenon more common, and today provided a suitable case in point.

Perhaps this was a new interpretation of the phrase ‘defence review’. Instead of a review of Britain’s defence capacity, this would be a new game, like charades, in which the player must defend the most palpable absurd proposition imaginable.

Round one: That we should continue to spend billions of pounds on aircraft carriers which can’t be used by our aircraft.

This simple and ludicrous plan works as follows: to finish production on two carriers which none of our planes can land on for the next ten years. This was surely the Monty Python of defence reviews. It was absurdity presented with solemnity.

As many Labour figures have been keen to point out, the Tory press would have absolutely savaged a Labour government for coming out with something as face-bendingly incompetent as what was presented to us today. Just one day before the spending review throws 490,000 people out of work (thank you Danny Alexander), the government was going to finish off billions of pounds worth of unusable carrier. It’s best to laugh. Taking it seriously will lead to a V for Vendetta-style revolution. On second thoughts, perhaps we should take it seriously.

As Cameron stood up to speak, the Labour benches laughed at him. He hadn’t even finished a sentence. They loved the package he was about to present because it was so ridiculous. Unfortunately, they were largely responsible. The reason the carriers were impossible to cancel was because the penalty clauses in the private contracts would have been worse than finishing them. For years, we have been warned of the staggering ignorance of the government officials settling contracts with the private sector. Now it is writ large all over the nation’s newspapers.

Ed Miliband stood up and shamelessly asked if there really was no other way but to “have aircraft carriers without aircraft”? The Tories jeered and screamed for an apology. It was, as they realised, eye-wateringly hypocritical of him. But when you’re on the side of the bloke genuinely putting this defence review forward as official policy it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Whatever the circumstances, this was a shabby, pitiful move. It makes us an international laughing stock. Whatever else it was, it wasn’t the time for party political barracking.

But – surprise, surprise – that’s what we got. MPs approached the issue with all the verve and vigour they bring to a normal parliamentary debate. Namely: public school humour, short memories and a wilful disinterest in their own failings.

This wasn’t a good day to sit in the Commons and simultaneously try to retain some sort of national pride. Across from my seat I could see that the public gallery was full to capacity. Thank god there are no schoolchildren, I thought. They might just come to the conclusion that no-one in this country has any idea what they’re doing.