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Thursday 28th June 2012 | 20:01
WORDS: PAUL WAUGH AND SAM MACRORY
Nick Harvey is the very model of a Coalition major-general. Credited with calm, common good sense, the Minister for the Armed Forces combines a Tory-like rigour on spending cuts with a Liberal Democrat emphasis on consensus and social sensibility.
Often seen across all sides of the House as one of the ‘nice guys’ of British politics, the Devon North MP marked the 20th anniversary of his election recently and is one of the ‘young veterans’ of the 1992 intake. The only Lib Dem to vote against Maastricht, he is sometimes mischievously referred to by Conservatives as ‘one of us’.
A minister at the MoD since the election, Harvey now needs every inch of his Parliamentary experience, cross-party appeal and inner calm as he guides the UK armed forces through one of their most turbulent periods in peacetime history.
Sitting in his Commons office, with copies of ‘Blair’s Wars’ and ‘Suez ‘56’ on his bookshelf underlining his long-standing interest in defence, Harvey knows these are grim times for servicemen and their families.
“Nobody likes making the painful changes we have had to make to defence. None of us came into Parliament wanting to make armed servicemen redundant or delete capabilities from the inventory, but the economic circumstances are such that we’ve got to get things under control, we’ve got to put ourselves onto a coherent footing for the challenges of the 21st century,” he says. “Beyond the normal political ritual of ya-boo, there doesn’t seem to me to be a gaping chasm across the House. We all share the discomfort and displeasure at having to do these things which the armed forces and their families feel too.”
Does he think trying to keep up morale is one of the toughest bits of his job?
“I do. But let’s address the morale issue. We are cutting manpower, working those who are left harder, freezing pay, we’re cutting allowances, we’re reviewing pensions, you can’t expect morale to be too rosy in the context of all of that. And the best way for us to address morale is to get decisions made and get as much certainty as we can where everybody is currently anxious about a number of uncertainties. And we will do those as quickly as we can and I think once people know where they are and understand what the future looks like, morale will begin to pick up.”
He adds: “I think you can see across the public services, where we’re having to reduce the size of services, once the grim deed is done, those who are left work out how they are going to run things with smaller numbers and then they roll up their sleeves and get on with it and that is the point at which your morale will turn from a down curve to an up curve. And I would hope that within the next six months or so there will be an answer to a lot of the questions that are hovering over them.”
Harvey knows that FutureForce 2020, the plans to overhaul the Army, is one of the key uncertainties, particularly with yet more regiments likely to be disbanded. He says that ‘current recruitment rates’ of individual units are just one of several factors that will be taken into account.
“You can’t do it by salami slicing or you will end up with something incoherent. You’ve got to get the right balance of light infantry, armoured infantry, artillery, cavalry that you think you’re going to need for the sort of conflict that your best estimation is that you’re likely to be engaged in in years to come. It won’t be the same as in the Cold War.”
Resolutely down to earth, he’s definitely more Nick Harvey than Harvey Nicks. But the Minister for the Armed Forces is certainly viewed by both Number 10 and the DPM’s office as one of their best political salesmen. One reason is his loyalty.
When asked why Downing Street are delaying some MoD decisions, he replies:
“Number 10 has got to look at a broader canvas than the MoD has to. Number 10/Cabinet Office/Treasury have to take a whole Government view of things.”
One party which may not see Harvey as a Mr Nice Guy is the SNP. And given his message on what will happen to Scotland after independence, the nationalists are likely to be even less enamoured.
“My message to voters in Scotland is that Scotland is good for defence and defence is good for Scotland. If Scotland goes its own way, it will be a big loser in defence because the footprint for Scottish defence would be far smaller than the UK defence footprint in Scotland is at present,” he says.
“And in particular the Scottish defence industries, which get a good chunk of the supply to the UK armed forces, will then be a non-domestic supplier, a foreign supplier. And the only circumstances in which a Government can derogate from EU competition law is on the grounds of national security, where you can back out of competition in order place a contract with one of your own facilities but not with that of a next door neighbour.
“So the Scottish defence industry would still be able to supply the UK armed forces but only in a competitive framework where it would have to beat off competitive bids from South Korea or wherever it might be. That’s not to say they couldn’t or wouldn’t, but they would find the going much tougher than they will as part of sovereign UK capability. It has a profound implication for Scottish jobs.”
Harvey is fully signed up to the coalition of the willing that is the current Lib-Con Government. But when he was appointed as the Lib Dems’ man at the Ministry of Defence, one immediate headache was to shape a collective policy on whether to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent. With his own party’s long opposition at loggerheads with Conservative support, a final decision on whether to increase Trident’s lifespan was conveniently delayed until 2016.
In the interim, Harvey is leading an 18-month review, which, he says, is “looking at alternatives to a submarine- based system, alternative submarine-based systems, and alternative postures.”
Harvey envisages the review, which he will sign off on at the end of the year, “provoking a national debate from early next year through to an election in 2015 and a decision by the government of the day in 2016”, but he refuses to drop any hints as to its recommendations.
However, he suggests there may be some truth in reports that military chiefs are coming round to the Lib Dem side of the argument. “The Chancellor made it clear at the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review that the future deterrent will be paid for out of the defence budget” Harvey warns, adding. “I would imagine that the armed forces will be viewing this, when it emerges, with more interest for the future if they’re thinking in terms of the opposing costs between what we spend on a future deterrent and what we can spend on the rest of the armed forces.”
He gives a heavy hint that upgrades to both its naval fleet and air force – in the shape of the Type 26 Frigates and F-35 joint strike fighters – would be put at risk in the early 2020s by the cost of Trident. “Let’s just say the pressure on the spending will all come at once. We thought we took some tough decisions in the SDSR, but whoever’s making the tough decisions then will really know the meanings of tough decisions.”
Whatever his review’s findings, Harvey is hopeful of one outcome. “I’m optimistic that’s there’s going to be a grown-up argument nationally [and] I’m optimistic that the nation is going to have a grown-up debate about this”, he concludes. “We owe it to ourselves to have a more mature and less knee-jerk argument about this than perhaps has been the case in the past.”
Of more immediate concern is finalising security for next month’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. While the Home Office and the police have lead responsibility, the MoD is providing a “major ship in the Thames with helicopters on board”, and will enforce a special air restriction zone over London for the duration of the Olympics.
“Some people say: ‘isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ I think the best possible outcome is that the whole thing goes off quietly in security terms and is a great success, and it can be left to historians to debate whether or not the security was excessive. What I would not want, is for something to kick off and then people to be pointing fingers and saying you haven’t made enough preparation” Harvey argues.
Once the summer is over, Harvey will gather with his Liberal Democrat colleagues at the party’s autumn conference. In last week’s issue of The House, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes suggested that this would mark the point when the party would start to openly discuss a coalition exit strategy. Hughes, says Harvey, is “right to point to this autumn’s conference season as the half way mark… you’ll probably see both parties spelling out the distinctive policies for the future.”
But where Hughes expanded at length on a possible Lib-Lab coalition post-2015, Harvey seems to suggest that the present coalition’s lifetime may yet be extended. The Lib-Lab coalition in Scotland, he notes, saw through its full four-year team and “then articulated distinctive messages and policies at the election campaign as to what they wanted to achieve in the next four years, but were able at the end of that to come together and form another government for the next four years.”
For now, as a minister at the heart of the coalition, Harvey remains focused on the day job. “So far as the working relationship for this parliament is concerned, of course its got its ups and downs – nobody ever said it would be easy – but I’m not personally thinking in terms of exit strategies. I think it makes sense to see the job through, articulate clearly distinctive visions for the next parliament, and to share responsibility for what happens in this parliament. The logic that brought the coalition around in the first place, that at a time of economic crisis the country needed a government that could take difficult decisions, will, to my judgment, be as true in the last six or 12 months of this parliament as it was in the summer of 2010, and therefore I’m not viewing it as de-coupling or you just put the country into the crisis later that we wanted to avoid earlier.”
However, Harvey is braced for a spat over the just-published plans to House of Lords.
Although he insists that “time is still on our side”, Harvey accepts that the Lib Dems may need to dig in for the long haul to see through their prized policy.
“So far as we’re concerned, this is agreed business. Let’s get it done and move on to other things. If other people want to drag it out and make a big meal of it, then I suppose we’ll just have to go along with that and match them for stamina.”
Which means, he hints, that the Lib Dems could resist a redrawing of Commons constituency boundaries if the Tories block their Upper House plans.
“I wouldn’t care to predict what the outcome of the boundary review will be…. we’ll have to see what they come up with by way of a map” Harvey begins, untroubled that the boundary review was agreed to when the coalition was formed.
“That was the coalition agreement. As the coalition agreement was that the Conservatives would support an AV referendum. You can form your own judgments about what happened thereafter in that case, and we’ll form our own judgments whether what might happen thereafter in this case.”
He may look like a Tory and sound like a Tory. But beyond his day job in defence of the realm, Nick Harvey is at heart very much a Liberal Democrat. It’s just that some battle lines have not yet been drawn.
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