Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Talking down British troops?

There was nothing wrong with Gordon Brown going to Iraq to talk about troop withdrawals. But don’t take it from me; I have it on the highest authority, as interviewed on the Today programme yesterday morning:

James Naughtie: Firstly, Gordon Brown’s visit to Iraq. Is that something you welcome, and would you expect something specific to be said and to come out of it?

David Cameron: Yes. I mean, I’ve been to Baghdad and Basra myself and met with British troops, and they’ve been doing incredible, difficult work there. And if it’s now possible to hand over progressively to the Iraqi army and to bring more of our troops home, then he’ll certainly have my support.

By the afternoon, scenting an opportunity to show Brown up, the Tories had completely changed tack. Liam Fox led the charge:

You, Prime Minister, in your self-indulgent, plagiarised, 67-minute speech, how much did you dedicate to Iraq, Afghanistan and our Armed Forces? 126 words. 126 words. One word for every two servicemen or women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope you remember that when you are having your photo opportunities in Iraq today.

I have no idea whether this inane hysteria was an act or sincerely felt. I don’t care. But if I were a soldier in Iraq wanting some non-partisan prime ministerial attention, and keen to hear news of troop withdrawals, I’d rather Brown flew out to see us than devote some undefined threshold number of words to me in his party conference speech.

Was Brown’s use of troop numbers (total reductions vs those already withdrawn vs those already announced) dishonest? Here’s what he actually said:

I believe that by the end of the year the British forces, which have been 5,500, can be reduced to 4,500, and that by the end of the year, indeed by Christmas, 1,000 of our troops can be brought back to the UK and to other purposes.

There’s no implication anywhere that any of this is a new announcement (even though some of it is). Think carefully about what tense he’s using in saying that numbers “have been 5,500”. Note that his mention of the number 1,000 occurs only after he’s said that the reduction will be from 5.500 to 4,500. There’s no scope at all for confusion about the lower level of troops he means.

Hadn’t he promised to tell this to Parliament, though?

I stand ready and willing to be corrected on this, but I can’t find anywhere he’s actually said such a thing. True, many people (including me) had recently formed that impression, from his having said:

I’m going to make a statement to the House of Commons when we return in October, and I want to set out to the House of Commons how we are moving in the provinces for which we have responsibility in Iraq from what you might call the combat role to one where the Iraqis themselves take over the responsibility for their own security…

But nowhere does this suggest either that he’d mention numbers for withdrawal in this statement or that he wouldn’t mention such numbers in any non-Parliamentary statement. Any impression to that effect that I or various TV/newspaper pundits had formed seems to have been entirely our own fault.

That said, such a media expectation had formed, and so Brown’s move yesterday was predictably likely to draw him some flak. Probably the (politically) clumsiest move he’s made in the job so far.

Now, I could discuss whether these reductions would be a good thing for Iraq or for the British troops that remain, but let’s face it, the politicking is the far more important issue. Election on 1 November?

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