Famous four manage select committee cohesion
This was no ordinary defence select committee hearing.
Four ministers: Oliver Letwin, William Hague, Liam Fox and Andrew Mitchell, all attended and managed to look happy about it.
Perhaps the last was a little riled when – following half an hour of answers from the other ministers, and a long interruption by Letwin – the committee chair James Arbuthnot pronounced: “You may speak now, Mr Mitchell.”
The audience, expecting a discussion of the strategic defence and security review (SDSR), gave an audible sigh when the chair opened by warning that he must “reduce expectations”. They would, he said, “[not] be going into the issue of why the Harriers weren’t kept”.
Liam Fox banged the table in faux-frustration, to the laughter of the other witnesses – but possibly not of RAF personnel.
The committee did manage to glean that the new National Security Council, devised by Baroness Neville-Jones during the Tories’ period in opposition, was also open to members of the opposition.
Harriet Harman, during her time as acting leader of the Labour Party, had attended last year, Hague revealed.
The panel clarified the role of the council, with Oliver Letwin suggesting that it is “strategic, not operational – it’s not Cobra”, while Hague admitted that “if you looked at it statistically”, the majority of the business they address probably relates to overseas matters.
Equally, there was room for a little obfuscation. Letwin displayed a hidden talent for Rumsfeldisms with his assertion that “we know that we don’t know exactly what the future will be”.
And Hague sidestepped Arbuthnot’s stinging assertion that claims of sustained naval influence in spite of the proposed cuts to the surface fleet was “unrealistic”.
The ministers’ ability to sing from the same hymn sheet seemed genuinely unforced, however. If anything they co-operated with unusual amity in the face of some tough questioning from the committee, particularly from its chair.
But maybe, just maybe, this has something to do with the less than flattering coverage which our overseas military capacity has received over the last few days.