Dunkirk spirit? Not among military chiefs and top civil servants there isn’t. Word is they have been spitting blood over Gordon Brown’s plans for the navy to rescue Britons stranded by the volcanic fog.
I am told that the prime minister was in shouting mode at a meeting on Monday of Cobra (it stands for the cabinet office briefing room A, where crisis discussions are held).
“Some of the people there thought Gordon was barking,” said one insider. “I don’t think anyone actually said no to him but they were all trying to dissuade him. This is just using the navy to give a lollipop to the voters.”
Dismayed officials argue that the closure of the skies might be a huge inconvenience to British tourists but was hardly a life or death emergency that justifies the use of warships.
“These are military ships, they’re all having to be moved around away from their normal duties and where do you stop?” said one senior figure.
“Some of the stranded people are in Thailand and Australia. Are we going to sail there to pick them up? These vessels are totally unsuited to the task anyway. They’re not exactly fitted with safety belts for children.”
Even the prospect of sending the navy no further than France is causing angst in Whitehall. Some in the Home Office reckon the first sight of a British warship will have hundreds of illegal immigrants rushing down to the docks at Calais as fast as they can go.
“Another weak chink in our armour when it comes to clocking people into the country and clocking them out,” I was told. Nor would it be possible to “dump them at Dover”. Taxpayers would have to pay for fleets of coaches to take them wherever they wanted to go.
So great is the angst that some military people are speaking out publicly. Admiral Sir Jock Slater told BBC’s Radio 4 that he was “uneasy” about warships being used to ferry people not from a hostile environment but from a benign one.
The whole idea seems to have come from Lord West, former first sea lord and chief of naval staff, and now one of GB’s ministerial Goats – government of all talents. Much of Whitehall’s angst is centred on him.
Says one observer, Lord West “seems to think he is still in charge of the navy”. With a defence review coming up after the election, Lord West doubtless saw it as a way of justifying the navy’s budget and its plans for two new, hugely expensive carriers. If so it’s a costly piece of PR. Military experts put the cost of keeping HMS Ark Royal afloat at a whopping £3,500 an hour.
The stunt could backfire. Outsiders may see it as an admiral-turned-politician press-ganging the navy into the service of GB’s election campaign. The navy should keep clear. Small wonder if some senior defence ministry people are feeling cynical. Said one: “This can’t have anything to do with politics, can it? And I’m sure Lord West will raise the profile of the navy with all the skill of a fairground showman.”
He paused. “Some of us have been wondering what was the point of building two 65,000 tonne carriers without having any aircraft to put on them. Now we know.”
Stuff the rules
Also outrageous is the way GB will see the latest economic statistics 24 hours in advance. Crucially, he will have the figures showing whether we are pulling out of recession ahead of tomorrow’s TV leaders’ debate. Tory David Cameron and Lib Dem Nick Clegg will have to wait till Friday.
GB’s advantage is rooted in an obscure piece of legislation passed two years ago. Former Whitehall mandarin Sir Michael Scholar, now head of the UK Statistics Authority, rightly wants the system changed.
Last month, Sir Michael said ministers should be allowed to see official figures no more than three hours before they were published – at most. He stressed that equality of access was important for public debate otherwise there were “too many dark hours” when nobody could see what was happening.
Particularly during a general election, this is the kind of legalised cheating the public finds abhorrent. The cabinet office should see to it that all party leaders see the figures at the same time and stuff the rules. The rules are wrong.
No need to know
I hear that the Lib Dems have only once met Home Office officials to discuss their policy plans as allowed before an election. Apparently they had “good discussions” and did not ask for another meeting.
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