It's the BIG story of the day and it could well end in the end of a career in frontline politics… so obviously the meeja have completely ignored the highly damaging leak of a confidential letter from the Defence Secretary to the Prime Monster in favour of camping about outside Dead Millipede's Caravan of Sulk™.
(Seriously, if he WANTED to go quietly could he not have just said so rather than drawing all the attention by refusing to make a statement until after the moment when it was OBVIOUS what he'd done? No, no, no, now I'M doing it!)
A couple of weekends back, Radio Four's Saturday morning-when-Parliament-is-on-holiday slot Beyond
The Star Chamber, in case you don't know, is where the spending ministers go to justify their budgets or, at the moment, prove their cuts are good enough. It involves standing up in front of a panel of judges and doing you piece and getting ejected if you fail… yes, exactly like X-Factor.
It takes its name from the court of Privy Councillors that used to be convened in the Palace of Westminster to try prisoners of the highest rank.
We haven't actually HAD a Star Chamber for the last thirteen years, because Mr Frown preferred to execute people in person. Er.
Mr Rawnsley therefore had to interview a number of former senior Conservatories – but in spite of that it was pretty interesting (probably 'cos they were all so past it they had no interest in not telling it like it really is) – about some of the PITFALLS of going through the Star Chamber process.
You can, for example, try getting your cuts in FIRST. The rewards for this are MANIFEST as discovered by Mr Eric "In A" Pickles and Ms Caroline "Magic" Spellman who have been rewards with seat on the judging panel for being good little boys and girls.
But this can be high risk, too, as a too enthusiastic approach to cutting your own department is likely to leave you without visible means of support – something called "doing a John Moore" in Whitehall circles, after the former darling of Queen Maggie who went out on a limb for her, and then sawed it off after himself.
If you find things getting too TIGHT, of course, you have the option of appealing to the Cabinet. The problem there is that you are basically asking your RIVALS to give up their own cash for you. Which can end up making it even trickier for you unless you have a cast-iron case or a copper-bottomed manifesto pledge (or possibly a silver tongue) in your portfolio.
One approach is to offer bigger savings LATER in return for a little investment NOW. This is clearly what Mr Iain Drunken Swerve is up to, offering to show huge benefits from reforming, er, benefits if he can just have a little start up cash. The problem here is that the Treasury is likely to say that they like the big savings later, but they would like some saving now AS WELL. This, of course, is one of the reasons why the 'Eighties were so GHASTLY, so we have to hope Mr Drunken Swerve does a better job than his predecessors.
Another way is to bring PUBLIC PRESSURE to bear by the strategic use of the LEAK. This too has its disadvantages. It's usually pretty obvious who is leaking. The Cabinet are NOT stupid, and remember THEY are the ones judging your case. So, good people to irritate. Also, the Treasury does not like to be pushed about – in fact, Mr Nigel "Blip" Lawson said that he used to make a point of NEVER giving in to the demands of leakers. As he saw it, they punished themselves: if they hadn't leaked they stood a chance of PRIVATE humiliation; given that they had leaked, they make PUBLIC HUMILIATION inevitable.
This, of course, was the strategy so inexpertly adopted by the current-but-probably-not-for-long Minister for Explosions, swivel-eyed Euro nut, "Fantastic" Dr Fox, leaking the "suggestion" that the Trident atomic weapon system was supposed to be funded "by the Treasury" rather than from the defence budget.
This, incidentally, was one of the most AMUSING moments of the programme as they went over to a Whitehall Mandarin for a response. It was all he could do not to laugh like a HYENA at this idea, suggesting that perhaps the Defence Secretary could pay for our Nuclear Defence but the Treasury would take over the air-force instead, or maybe the Health Department would like to exclude AMBULANCES from the Health Budget on the same basis.
It was the general consensus of the talking heads that the Fox had shot himself.
Of course the MOST risky strategy of all was to go over the heads of the Cabinet direct to the Prime Monster. Most risky because if the PM intervenes on your behalf EVERYONE is going to know it pretty darn quick, and you will definitely use up all your goody-points with Number Ten, so it had better be worth it.
Of course the WORST thing that can happen is if you are FOUND OUT running to daddy in Downing Street behind everyone else's back.
Oh very fluffy dear.
Basically, you've nailed your Ed Balls to the mast of saying no more cuts just at the point where you've also put the Prime Monster in a position where he cannot be seen to act in your favour (because he'd have to publicly overrule the Chancellor). One of you is going to have to GO, and let's face it it's NOT going to be him.
Look, defence spending is budgeted last year, this year and next year, at 3% of GDP (about forty billion pounds). That doesn't sound like much, but it IS up from the roughly 2.6% of GDP where it sat for most of the last decade (having come crashing down from an enormous 5% of GDP during the Cold War 'Eighties and 4% during the Milder War 'Nineties). What that means is that a 12% cut would only take the Defence budget BACK to where it was for most of the Hard Labour era. (Although yes, the Treasury WAS giving out extra handouts for, you know, fighting TWO WARS, but there's an easy saving there of, perhaps, NOT fighting any wars, maybe?)
Playing the "it will undermine morale" card is the worst kind of moral blackmail, and frankly stupid. We should be devoting our primary resources to supplying the army in the field… at least up to the point where we can pull it OUT of the field… and THEN worrying about what else we can afford by way of aircraft carriers and aircraft to park on top of them and so on.
The REAL question, though – the one the Strategic Defence Review OUGHT to be answering, but I bet it doesn't – is do we really WANT or NEED an army that can "project British military might anywhere in the world" or would we perhaps be better off with one that can defend Britain without PIS-BAD WORDING off people on the other side of the Earth?
So anyway BAD NEWS for swivel-eyed Dr Fox; GOOD NEWS for, probably, Mr Davis David who is the obvious choice to replace La Foxy as right-wing eminence gris in residence. And PROBABLY OKAY NEWS for the rest of us (except Mr Balloon who hates him) as Mr David is about sixty percent less swivel-eyed than Dr Fox.