17 April 2012 11:56 AM

UK military chief slams early Aussie Afghan pull-out

Australia was today strongly criticised for plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned.
A senior British military source said the move was “unhelpful” and that an orderly pull-out of Allied forces could “unravel” if NATO nations go it alone and decide different timetable to exit from the wartorn country.
“If people do start cutting and running 12 to 18 months earlier, you just risk the whole end piece getting ragged and messy,” he told The Standard.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited security improvements and the death of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders among reasons for speeding up a withdrawal, which will likely see most Australia troops home by the end of 2013.
“This is a war with a purpose. This is a war with an end,” she said in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
“We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it.”
But British military insiders were surprised by the announcement.
One senior source told The Standard: “We had an agreed plan. It did make sense. It was just about feasible and viable to get out in the timeline we were talking about and hand over to Afghan forces that were just ready.
“The whole thing is going to unravel if everybody starts doing their own thing.
“Instead of it being orderly and co-ordinated, you do run the risk that you hand over to an Afghan force that is not quite ready for the task.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces losing the French presidency within weeks, and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta have hinted at accelerating the hand-over for Afghan forces to take the security lead across the country, with Allied forces stepping back from a combat role next year and no longer taking part in routine day-to-day patrols.
But Ms Gillard’s statement was seen as more dramatic and fuelled speculation that the faster timetable is being driven by Barack Obama to have withdrawal plans finalised before the November US presidential election.
She denied this and the pull-out will be discussed at the NATO summit in Chicago next month.
America and Britain have agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
If the US changed its plans, the UK is widely expected to follow them.
But a major assault by the Taliban in Kabul this week raised questions about whether Afghan forces will be able to control security after foreign troops withdraw.
US forces number about 90,000 of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan and Britain 9,500. Australia has about 1,550.
With 32 Australian soldiers killed and hundreds wounded, the Australian government is under mounting pressure to withdraw troops, and faces an expected election next year which Ms Gillard is forecast to lose.
The Australian soldiers’ primary objective has been training an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in Uruzgan province.

Nicholas Cecil

11 January 2012 4:06 PM

The Ministry of Defence zoo

A cracking parliamentary question from shadow defence minister Kevan Jones reveals the Ministry of Defence could set up a pretty decent petting zoo if world peace broke out.

The roll call of animals employed by the department, according to Defence Minister Andrew Robathan, looks like this:

992 working dogs (324 search dogs, 409 guard dogs and 259 super-dogs that can do both)

449 ceremonial horses

13 falcons used by the Navy to clear runways

In addition, the following animals are offical mascots:

Two drum horses

Three dogs

Three mountain goats

One swaledale ram

Two Shetland ponies

And a partridge in a pear tree (I'm joking about the partridge).

As a former defence minister, I'm sure Jones knew exactly how many animals were at the MoD, which is why he asked the question. Sadly, though, Robathan refuses to say how much it costs to keep the animals - arguing the data is not held centrally and would cost too much to uncover.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

03 November 2011 11:59 AM

Clegg's warm welcome to returning Libya heroes

With David Cameron part of frantic efforts to save the Euro in France, Nick Clegg had a rather more enjoyable engagement this morning.

The Deputy Prime Minister was at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire to welcome home returning heroes from the Libya conflict.

He took the opportunity to thank troops on behalf of Britain and Libya with some moving words - and said they had made the key differnce in ridding the world of Gaddafi.

Here is some of his address: “This was an allied effort. But I am here to pay tribute to you, the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces. You may have had the benefit of world-class aircraft. You may have had the benefit of precision weaponry. You may have had the support of the world’s greatest military alliance. But it has been your skill, your commitment, your bravery that has made the difference... 

“Thanks to the protection you have provided the Libyan people in their darkest hour, they have thrown off the yoke of Gaddafi and his regime. And, because of you, the guardians of freedom, they now have hope for their future.

“The road ahead will not be easy. But the people of Libya will have the support of the British Government as they build a new society. And Libya will no longer be a pariah state on the Mediterranean. Which means you have done a great service for Britain's national security too.

“You have saved countless lives. You have performed magnificently in testing times. Now, as you return to your families, my thanks, the nation’s thanks, the thanks of the Libyan people go to you.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 November 2011 1:36 PM

Foreign sniper discovered in Parliament

This is one of the best "small world" stories I've ever come across.

Bob Stewart, the former army commander who is now a Conservative MP, has struck up a friendship with a Commons chef who served as a sniper with Bosnian Muslim forces.


Sam Kaltak approached "Bosnia Bob" after recognising him in one of the MPs' tea rooms. It turned out Sam was a sniper around the same central Bosnian towns where the Colonel was leading women and children to safety in the early 1990s.

Originally from Slovenia, Mr Kaltak now wants to cook for British forces and is willing to go to Afghanistan to do so - with support from Colonel Stewart.

The MP doubts Mr Kaltak ever opened fire on British forces (they were, broadly speaking, on the same side) and is keen to stress he is no security threat. They have formed a bond over their shared experiences of the bitter conflict where temperatures dropped well below freezing.

It is a great example of something good coming from Europe's worst conflict since the Second World War.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

18 October 2011 3:39 PM

Ministerial Code to be tightened

The Ministerial Code will be rewritten after the Fox affair, I hear. Sir Gus O'Donnell has concluded that there was a loophole between the spirit of the rules and the letter.

Essentially, he has concluded that the "close and visible association" between Dr Fox and Adam Werritty, at home and abroad, especially combined with the latter's buisiness cards describing himself as an "adviser to the SofS", were all likely to have misled people.

This fuelled an impression that Adam Werritty spoke on behalf of the UK Government.

That key conclusion may sound mild to people who have been reading amazing tales in the papers about Mr Werritty plotting regime change in Iran (and I've no idea if these claims are true or not) but in Whitehall terms this is toxic.  The business of politics depends on everyone saying the same thing: That goes for Cabinet members talking to the UK media, for example, but also for British ministers, diplomats and officials speaking to foreign countries. Any gaps in the rhetoric weaken the overall impact and make other countries speculate that a stance is not solid.

Werritty, who appeared to outsiders to be a member of Fox's staff but talked a completely different language to the Foreign Office representatives, was in Whitehall terms a rogue elephant.  It seems that Dr Fox's arrangements raised alarm bells but he felt that using Mr Werritty as a mate and sounding board did not breach any rules in the Ministerial Code and there was an impasse.

Therefore, the Code must change so that in future it is a firm duty on ministers to keep a distinct line between mates and mandarins.



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter   @JoeMurphyLondon



Sorry, Ed, Cameron won't oblige

Ed Miliband's hope of dragging the PM to the chamber probably won't be fulfilled. Even if John Bercow agrees to an urgent question on the Fox affair, Downing Street would rather send another minister to face the inevitable Labour cries of "Where's the Prime Minister?"

And the identity of the minister whose afternoon is at risk of being ruined?  Step forward Sir George Young, the sturdy baronet and Leader of the House who is even now at the ready for the call, ESP sources reveal.  A thoroughly nice and dependable bloke, Sir George, in the spirit of Downton's Lord Grantham.

 Stop Press:  Bercow has just indicated in the House he will accept an Urgent Question once the report has been published, which could mean just after Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow.  Stand by, Sir George


Joe Murphy



17 October 2011 2:16 PM

What Liam will do next

I am told that Liam Fox will continue his Atlantic Bridge project from the backbenches after Gus O'Donnell reports tomorrow.

The former Defence Secretary believes his scheme to forge closer links between British and American right wing politicians is too important to drop.

Friends believe he will be cleared by an official Whitehall inquiry tomorrow of having any personal financial interest in Mr Werritty’s activities.

Meanwhile, Dr Fox is “appalled” by the way his friend Adam Werritty has been “traduced” in media reporting of the controvers, say his friends.

This does not sound like a man who will hide away from the spotlight in months to come. Instead, I am getting a picture of a politician who admits mucking up the handling of his political interests but is of the view that those interests were - and are - right to pursue.

What does that mean for David Cameron?  Unless Gus O'Donnell's report has found serious wrongdoing, Dr Fox may find some sympathetic ears among Tory backbenchers.

Dr Fox resigned from Cabinet on Friday when he again apologised for having “blurred” the line between his ministerial duties and his personal interests.

(Incidentially, he is entitled to pocket £17,206 as severance pay following his resignation.)

I've spoken to sources who think Fox will be criticised for what one called running an “independent foreign policy” after the key findings of Sir Gus's report are published. There were periods when the former minister went off-radar to his own civil servants while he focussed on his international political agenda with Mr Werritty.



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter     @JoeMurphyLondon




13 October 2011 2:46 PM

Fox insists it's back to business as usual

Liam Fox was in defiant mood this morning as allegations about his self-styled adviser Adam Werritty continued to swirl.

With the support of military chiefs said to be slipping away, the Defence Secretary insisted it was "back to completely normal working mode" at the MoD.

"I’m continuing to do what is needed at the moment which is that the Defence Secretary focuses on Defence issues," Dr Fox said on his way to work.

As if to emphasise the point, the department announced a £300 million new state of the art rehabilitation centre would be built in the Midlands.

A partnership between the MoD, service charities and a "very substantial" donation from the Duke of Westminster, it is set to open by 2017 (by which point, it is worth noting, we should be well out of Afghanistan).

David Cameron repeated his praise of Dr Fox today and said a refusal to sack his Cabinet minister was a sign of strength.

“I think that Liam Fox has done a great job sorting out the defence budget, making sure we have been effective in Libya and clearing up the mess left in the Ministry of Defence by the last Government," the PM said.

“A strong leader recognises that you have to take time to get all the information and answer all the questions. A weak leader is someone who jumps at it because of some artificial deadline. We get all the facts first and then establish a decision.”

But the headlines are not going away, no matter how much the Government might want them to. Let's see what tomorrow brings - more difficult questions, or a gradual slip back towards business as usual.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

11 October 2011 12:20 PM

Werritty and the money question

How much did Adam Werritty spend on all those trips abroad where he bumped into Liam Fox?

The answer may be a staggeringly high amount. After all, the Guardian reported that at least one of the 18 trips involved First Class travel.

I've done an analysis based on British Airways fares to the various destinations, which included Dubai five times, plus Hong Kong Washington and Singapore twice each.  Exact costs are impossible to determine because fares vary according to demand so I'm basing this on return flights taken this week.

Flying in BA’s cheapest economy seats, the 18 trips would cost £25,000 in tickets.  However, if Mr Werritty went business class, his ticket expenses alone would have gone up to £77,146. 

Now let's add in two nights stay each trip in a typical £200 a night business hotel, costing another £7,200. 

That would take the total travel cost to £85,000. But then there are all those dinners at the sort of costly restaurants where one might just bump into a millionaire private equity boss.  With such high subsistence costs, he could easily have spent over £100,000.

I think these are conservative estimates.  If, as suggested by the Guardian, he flew First Class then the tickets would have been a third more expensive.

It does beg a pretty big question. Who the hell was paying for all of this and what did they think they were getting out of it?

There may be a perfectly dull and innocent explanation. But I've left two messages on Adam Werritty's mobile and I'm still waiting to for him to phone back and give it.



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon




10 October 2011 4:53 PM

"Serious mistakes" yet Fox is still running

What an amazing afternoon of drama.  Liam Fox gave a bravura performance in the Commons.  Labour did not land a heavy blow, while senior Tories rallied behind him strongly.

A few moments later Downing Street released its reaction to the interim report by Ursula Brennan ... the statement talks of "serious mistakes" and implies that  the Ministerial Code was not properly adhered to  (a full copy is below). 

Gosh. Ordinarily, such a hefty criticism from No 10 would kill a minister instantly. However the choreography of Fox making an apology first in the Commons means that the sting was pulled.  Cameron can now say he was suitably severe, while Fox can say he has apologised already.

But the chase is still on. Fox's admission that he met Werritty abroad 18 times and 22 times in London raised eyebrows, and we still don't know exactly who was paying Werritty and why.

(Post script:  Defence Sources have given briefings just now where answers to these basic questions were scanty and not very convincing.  The general verdict of hacks present was that the smell is not going away.)

Here's No 10's statement in full:

A Downing Street spokesperson said:  "The Prime Minister has now seen the interim findings of the Ministry of Defence's Permanent Secretary review into Liam Fox's relationship with Mr Adam Werrity, and discussed them with the Cabinet Secretary.
"It is clear, as Liam Fox himself said yesterday, that serious mistakes were made in allowing the distinction between professional responsibilities and personal loyalties to be blurred - and this has clearly raised concerns about impropriety and potential conflicts of interest.  While the Permanent Secretary's initial conclusion is that no classified or other defence related official information was discussed with or given to Mr Werrity by the Secretary of State or the department, it is clear that much tighter procedures are needed within the department to ensure that the Ministerial Code is properly adhered to in future.
"Following these interim findings the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to work with the Permanent Secretary to complete the report, addressing all the remaining questions that have been raised by this issue."


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter   @JoeMurphyLondon



Osborne acts for Fox's sake

Two interesting things emerging as Foxie fights for his life.

First, there is an operation going on to help him involving George Osborne's supporters. This morning we had Greg Hands, the Chelsea and Fulham MP, going on radio and TV. Hands is Osbrone's PPS.

Then, in the Commons Fox was backed by both Hands and Matt Hancock, another trusted Osborne-ite. 

To be backed by one mate of the Chancellor is lucky. To get two in one day smacks of intrigue. Does Osborne hope for Fox's endorsement in a leadership contest in future (a valuable endorsement, especially if George is up against Boris Johnson).

Second, it emerges that Labour's defence team was treated to a freebie trip to Washington by the company run by Harvey Boulter, the same businessman that engineered a meeting with Fox via Adam Werritty. 

To be fair to the Labour trio who enjoyed the all-expenses paid trip (shadow ministers Jim Murphy and Michael Dugher plus an aide) they declared it openly in the register of interests and are not under the obligations of ministerial duty.

But it is striking that Boulter seems to have been spending big bucks to seek influence across the political spectrum.  This revelation does not get Liam Fox off the hook, but it muddies the water considerably and makes lectures about the need for long spoons a tad more difficult to press home.



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon




26 September 2011 1:41 PM

Murphy's bold move

Last week I wrote about Labour's bid to decontaminate their defence brand with plans for a radical overhaul of procurement rules.

Today shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has gone a lot further - making a bold move to paint Labour as the party of the armed forces.

In his conference set-piece, Mr Murphy announced that service personnel past and present will be able to join the party for £1 and that he had established a "Labour Friends of the Forces" group under former defence secretary and Nato chief George Robertson and para-turned-MP Dan Jarvis.

Murphy attacked the Government for cutting troops' pensions and equivocating over signing the Military Covenant into law, telling delegates: "I wanted to challenge the ill-informed orthodoxy of the past which says that Labour is the party of the NHS and the Tories are the party of the Forces. At a time when the Tories are proving that they are neither, a Labour opposition needs to be both if we are to be a Labour government."

He went on to vow Labour would be a "political home fit for our heroes".

It might be a laudable aim, but it leaves Murphy open to accusations of playing politics with the forces. Let's see if it sparks a storm.


Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

22 September 2011 11:57 AM

Decontaminating Labour's defence brand

It looks as though next week's Labour conference will see a huge emphasis on moving the party forward, if the evidence so far is anything to go by.

Ed Miliband has given two interviews, to Progress and the New Statesman, with a similar message. He wants to "rip up the rule book" and argue how the country's true potential is being "held back".

Ed is warning that he won't return to New Labour but will target the centre ground - something Jim Murphy is stressing today as well.

The shadow defence secretary has unveiled a review into the debacle that was defence procurement, acknowledging Labour's mistakes and coming up with some interesting ideas that could become party policy.

It is being hailed as the first major contribution to filling Ed's famous "blank sheet of paper" (a phrase he admits was a mistake today), and includes ideas such as axing major projects that go 20 per cent over budget or time, and building in an emphasis on supporting British industry.

There is also a suggestion that defence spending should be set on a 10-year timescale to stop it being a political football - something Labour accepted but failed to implement in government.

Murphy is keen to end the "conspiracy of optimism" where defence firms and the MoD underestimate costs and timetables to get them past the Treasury, only to see them balloon afterwards. A bit late for that, you might argue, but it shows that shadow ministers are willing to confront the mistakes made in office.

Given the Government has hammered on about the £38 billion black hole in the MoD budget, it could even be seen as an attempt to decontaminate the Labour brand on defence.

Murphy argues the Government has "already lost its way" on defence procurement. And pushing a line I expect we will hear a lot over the next week or so, he added: "This process shows that even in opposition Labour can be the party of the centre with the fresh ideas and real energy - all of which are essential for us to be the party of government again."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 September 2011 2:40 PM

Britain opposes death penalty for Gaddafi

Should Colonel Gaddafi face the death penalty for the atrocities committed by his brutal regime?

Ministers have insisted that it is up to the Libyan people to decide where he faces justice, be it in Libya or at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A trial in Libya could see him given the death penalty.

In an interview in The Standard, Overseas Aid Secretary Andrew Mitchell has made clear that Britain would oppose the death penalty for the tyrant but believes it is up to the Libyan people to decide his fate.

"People will have different views on the issue of the death penalty but it's a matter for the Libyan people and their new government, the National Transitional Council," he says.

"Britain's position is that we have signed up to conventions which are opposed to the using of the death penalty, so that is the position of the Government."


Nicholas Cecil

27 June 2011 2:40 PM

Fox: Loose talk costs lives

Defence Secretary Liam Fox today publicly warned his military chiefs that loose talk could cost lives.

He is understood to share the anger of David Cameron at the comments made by the head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, questioning the sustainability of the operation to oust Colonel Gaddafi.

The Prime Minister dragged the First Sea Lord into No10 for a dressing down earlier this month and both he and Mr Fox want a simple and united message to go out to the dictator.

In a question and answer session after a speech on military reforms today, Mr Fox said: “We must be very careful, those of us who have authority in defence, in discussing the sustainability of our mission. People’s lives are at stake. There can be only one message that goes out to Libya  - that is we have the military capability, political resolve and legal authority to see through what we started.”

Nicholas Cecil

22 June 2011 2:38 PM

Match of Today - PMQ edition

David Cameron v Ed Miliband
Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions
Kickoff: 12 noon

Miliband was crafty. He called Cameron “crass and high handed” for telling military leaders “I’ll do the talking”. Then he wrongfooted the PM on whether the DNA of suspected “rapists” should be kept or destroyed. Cameron racked his brain for details and was jeered for taking whispered lessons from  Theresa May. “At least we talk to each other,” quipped Cam, who counter-attacked over a shadow cabinet split on Ed Balls’s £51 billion VAT cut. Alas, it failed when Speaker Bercow brusquely silenced the out-of-order PM. Tories glowered at Bercow.

Score: Cameron, 1. Miliband 3.

26 May 2011 8:44 AM

Taking on the Taliban

In a previous life, a main plank of my job was trawling through written Parliamentary answers looking for stories. Old habits die hard, and I still try to go through them every day - not least because they are a treasure trove of information. Even if there are no great buried stories, PQs often contain interesting titbits.

And here's a classic example. More than 103,000 UK troops have served in Afghanistan since the start of military operations in 2001. 103,260, to be (im)pricise - the Ministry of Defence for some reason has no data for the period between January 2003 and October 14, 2005.

To put that into context, it's like the entire population of Oldham having done a tour fighting the Taliban. Remarkable.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse