Patrick Mercer: Lack of leadership shown in the shabby treatment of our troops

THE Ministry of Defence has been in another, awful muddle this week. It was not over equipment this time but its most precious asset – manpower.

The Armed Forces pride themselves on being people-focussed and, when you think about it, war is all about getting people to do unpalatable and dangerous things. Thank God I haven’t had to go to war with some of the bureaucrats and pen-pushers who interpret the General’s orders at the moment.

First, we heard about young RAF pilots not only having their training courses cancelled just before they qualified but also then being faced with discharge from the Service. I find this hard to believe. Pilots are not only incredibly carefully selected, they are also expensively trained and to ditch them at the last moment strikes me as being an awful waste of taxes and talent.

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The official line is that there aren’t enough aircraft for these lads to fly, but wouldn’t it be sensible to have a reserve of such people in the event of something going terribly wrong? That’s pretty well what we did in the late 1930s when we didn’t have enough Spitfires and Hurricanes, but we trained the pilots against the day.

The only certainty in war is uncertainty. If you look at the last few decades, various governments have cut both men and equipment when one “peace dividend” or another has been there for the taking, only to regret it when the next emergency has cropped up.

Remember the proposed cuts to the Royal Navy due to the dissipation of the Soviet threat in the 1980s? How we ever retook the Falklands I don’t know – well I do, it was on the back of our splendid sailors, airmen, marines and soldiers who, yet again, bailed out the politicians.

And that’s why the email sacking of 38 long-serving Warrant Officers was so disgraceful. These were men who had all served for 22 years, finished their standard contracts and then been offered something called the Long Service List.

In other words, a rolling contract that took account of both their pensions and their specialist skills which would be reviewed every twelve months. Now, in fairness, all of these men knew that their contracts were temporary by nature, but that does not mean to say that they can be consigned to the scrapheap by the click of an armchair warrior’s “send” button.

I served alongside men like this throughout my 25 years as an Infantry officer and I know exactly the sort of people that they are. They have seen a bit, done a bit and endured more hardship than most civilians will do in a lifetime. So they will probably accept the decision by their lords and masters with a shrug and a bit of a laugh. But their wives won’t.

Such ill-considered and careless behaviour by Major Andy Simpson – who we are told is the hapless creature who sent the order – will strike right at the heart of the women and kids who are living in married quarters in all probability and depending upon their husband’s modest pay.

Being given 12 months notice to pull themselves up by their roots to find a new house, a new job indeed, a whole new way of life, is just not right. This is especially hard for the individual who is currently away from home and serving in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, we debated the Military Covenant. You can define this in several different ways but, to me, it is the unwritten pact between the soldier, sailor or airman and his or her nation. It is the understanding that allows every fighting man to place himself in danger knowing that he will get a fair wage for what he is doing, fair treatment for his family, fair treatment for himself if he is wounded and a fair burial if it comes to that. It’s worth remembering that every serviceman or servicewoman doesn’t just sign on the line when they take their first shilling, they swear allegiance and fealty to the Crown; they expect to be treated with that same loyalty by their employers. Not only that, but everyone in the Forces is brought up to believe in the power of leadership and to exercise it as capably as they can.

And this is what has gone so badly wrong recently. There simply has been no leadership from the very highly-paid and privileged officers who command our Armed Forces.

Now, I accept that the Ministry of Defence is a big organisation in which mistakes will happen, but it’s the little people who really matter; it’s the little people who get killed and win wars.

They deserve better than a shabby message from an organisation that has forgotten where its priorities lie. In short, we don’t want politicians apologising for military mistakes, we need officers in uniform to take responsibility and to show leadership.

Patrick Mercer was a regular soldier who served nine tours in Northern Ireland and two in Bosnia. He is the Conservative MP for Newark.