Monday, February 28, 2011

Living in interesting times

It has been a very interesting week in British politics.

Previously, we had Caroline Spelman executing a handbrake turn on government policy on forests. On the one hand, her humility in abandoning a policy in the face of such public venom is to be applauded, but on the other hand, she and her department demonstrated utter incompetence in preparing the ground and marketing the policy to the nation. Amazingly enough, that incompetence carried forward into last week's embarrassment over the handling of the crisis of British citizens trapped in Egypt. Events are always the downfall of any government and their handling of Libya has proved spectacularly poor. It was only at the end of last week that UK Special Forces were deployed to save a small band of British citizens (pictured), whose reputations were under severe threat from Col Gaddafi's behaviour.

The limitations of the defence review are also coming under severe scrutiny - not least by a small group of former military commanders, who may well be being used as the voice of those still serving. Apparently, we don't need carriers or close support aircraft for the foreseeable future, when the reality is that the ability to put a safe floating airfield capable of supporting large transport helicopters close to an unstable state is crucial to evacuating UK nationals in times of crisis. The decision to mothball the small carrier fleet and to essentially leave the new carriers ill equipped will prove to be even more short-sighted in years to come, especially as the US Navy, usually first on the scene with an all-powerful carrier group, doesn't have one currently deployed in the Mediterranean at the moment and wouldn't be guaranteed to support us in any case. The only other vessel in the surface fleet capable of providing that sort of support - but without the capacity to carry aircraft in self-defence - is HMS Ocean, the helicopter carrier and assault ship, which is working up following a period of scheduled maintenance. Albion and Bulwark are capable headquarters vessels, but lack the deck space to operate sufficient helicopters to be useful in this sort of operation. The irony that HMS Cumberland, which has been ferrying evacuees back and forth for the past few days, will shortly return to the UK for decommissioning as a part of the review, isn't lost on observers.
Cameron also dropped the ball significantly this week, opening himself up to accusations that he was more interested in flogging teargas and baton rounds to dodgy Middle Eastern regimes than dealing with the real problem of UK nationals stuck in the middle of what threatens to deteriorate into a civil war. A hastily-arranged visit to inspect what may or may not be the birth of democracy in Egypt - and I'm far from convinced that it is anything other than a change of name over the door in that country - has largely gone unnoticed. While the trade mission may have been planned in advance, it won't look good on the record.

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