Tom Richmond: Apology for a Minister is not fit to hold high office and other election lessons

Michael Fallon took politics to a new low with his attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband's integrity over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
Michael Fallon took politics to a new low with his attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband's integrity over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
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Where are all the statesmen? They’re certainly not to be found at the Ministry of Defence where Michael Fallon – the man in charge of the Armed Forces – took politics to a new low with his ‘all guns blazing’ attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband’s integrity over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

In an astonishing intervention still reverberating, this apology of a Secretary of State said Mr Miliband could not be trusted with the country’s national security because he beat his elder brother David to the Labour leadership – and might end up in government with the Scottish National Party which has made the scrapping of the Trident a “red line issue” that is not open to negotiation.

Like many, I have grave misgivings about the prospect of an Labour-SNP alliance, but the future of defence policy has no bearing on the dynamics of the Miliband family.

This is what the Defence Secretary wrote in a bylined column in a national newspaper: “Remember: Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister and put our country’s security at risk.”

Can you ever imagine the likes of Denis Healey or Douglas Hurd conducting themselves in such an undignified manner? 
Like many, I have grave misgivings about the prospect of an Labour-SNP alliance – it will be potentially disastrous for Yorkshire – but the future of defence policy has no bearing whatsoever on the dynamics of the Miliband family. Ditto those newspaper reports in the right-wing press about the Doncaster North’s personal life which were intended to be a below-the-belt slur on his character.

Such dirty tricks and innuendo smack of desperation on the part of Mr Fallon’s party. Such stunts – I can think of no other words – also gloss over the fact that it is this Tory-led government which put Trident’s renewal on hold because they could not secure the support of the Lib Dems and it is unbecoming of David Cameron that he has not personally apologised to the Labour leader.

It has made me certain of one fact: Michael Fallon is not fit for high office, and should be replaced by the widely-respected Defence Select Committee chairman Rory Stewart, if the Tories are returned to power. He has brought his own judgement into disrepute and his failure to stand up to the Conservative smear machine showed great moral cowardice.

Yet what does this war of words say about the current state of the election campaign? Here are five pointers for the week ahead:

1. Defence matters: Despite my misgivings about Mr Fallon’s salvo, defence and foreign policy do still matter – the battle of wills being waged over the economy, and NHS, should not detract from this. The Trident tug-of-war also shows that there will have to be give-and-take if a hung parliament leads to the formation of a second coalition. Even though a majority of Tory and Labour MPs are probably in favour of retaining the nuclear deterrent, and could unite behind a motion in the Commons, I can’t see them acting together in the national interest as politics gets more personal.

2. SNP backash: Has the SNP’s popularity peaked? I ask this after Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested that a second independence referendum could now be held. The jeers in the audience were audible from those who believed that last September’s vote was intended to settle matters for a generation – will they now go out and vote for Labour north of the border in order to preserve the fabric of the United Kingdom?

3. Politics of envy: This is now Labour’s main line of attack after Ed Miliband claimed that “hundreds of millions of pounds” could be raised from the imposition of a ‘non-dom’ tax on foreign investors – weeks after Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said that the abolition of existing rules would cost Britain money. It is important that the Tory counter this by explaining the implications for the nation’s finances, and without further exacerbating the view that the Conservatives are only on the side of the rich and wealthy.

4. Ed Miliband’s fight back: Like it or not, the Labour leader continues to exceed expectations with a solid campaign. Yet he has still to convince some – he trudged all the way to Guiseley recently to endorse Jamie Hanley, his party’s candidate in Pudsey. Despite this, there was no picture of the two men in the latest leaflet pushed through my door – indeed Mr Miliband did not even receive a name-check while there were several mentions of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. This negative campaigning has to stop – it benefits no one.

5. Rising stars: Tory Priti Patel and Labour’s Chris Leslie, the one-time Shipley MP, are clearly held in the highest regard by their respective parties? Why? Both hold economic portfolios and have been a constant presence in the TV studios talking, eloquently, about a range of policies – as well as being deployed to neuter incoming flak from their opponents.

However my one abiding wish is for integrity to be returned to politics – and the likes of Michael Fallon to be sunk without trace. If, as is likely, the great British public do not entrust one party with the governance of this country, the politicians had better get used to working together.