Patrick Mercer: Our leaders are all at sea over defence and national security

THE party conference season lours darkly over a Brexit-battered electorate.

Contractors working on HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Most, I believe, will find it difficult to find much enthusiasm for junkets funded by us, but designed by politicians, solely for their own and the media’s consumption.

But if we sit stupefied, you can bet your last scratchcard that our two, main party bosses know that they’re fighting for their very existence.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Now, whilst the anti-Semitism row turns Labour inside out and the next Conservative leadership contenders paw the dust in Birmingham, I will be fascinated to see how both parties address their first and sacred duty – the defence of this country.

The new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Old-fashioned rusty thinking and poor leadership coloured by a dash of cowardice have weakened Britain to the point where we can barely raise our fists.

I wonder, though, whether either of our main leaders has either the strength – or the interest – to do anything about it?

I knew Jeremy Corbyn quite well. I admired his courage; I liked the
way that he dealt with the smooth sneers of Tony Blair, David Cameron and the like and how he stood his ground.

But I disagreed with most of his views profoundly and never dreamed that he would lead the Labour Party and hover on the steps of Downing Street.

Now defence is going to figure large amongst his many other travails.

It’s difficult if you have been chairman of the Stop the War Coalition – one of whose aims is “to oppose war generally” – to have to reinvent yourself as someone who might have to unleash Britain’s nuclear arsenal or deploy her armed forces.

For instance, when tested on whether he would honour a key pledge to come to the aid of another Nato partner when threatened, he equivocated saying: “That doesn’t necessarily mean sending troops. It means diplomatic, it means economic... sanctions, it means a whole range of things.”

No it doesn’t, Mr Corbyn. It means you will change your views to get the top job and all the perks that go with it.

At least he’s not (yet) been tested on defence, while Theresa May has.

Her predecessor oversaw the erosion of Britain’s military capability to a point where our forces can no longer operate effectively.

Mr Cameron scorned his sacred duty and our current Prime Minister has done nothing to change that.

That’s why our two, new aircraft carriers do not have enough ratings to operate them, the F35 fighters that are designed to fly off them are too expensive to allow enough to be bought, and we lack other ships to protect them at sea.

That’s why our artillery regiments that have deployed to the Baltic to deter the Russians don’t have sufficient ammunition.

That’s why the RAF is agonising about whether hipster beards can be permitted.

That’s why recruiting has collapsed.

Under a relentless barrage of cheeseparing and milk-soppery our forces have lost their way.

But does that matter?

Mr Corbyn warns us of the unwarranted influence of the “military/industrial complex”; could it not be that we only keep armed forces in order to prop up the businesses that equip them?

You might be forgiven for thinking that about the new aircraft carriers that I’ve already mentioned – while they may be operationally unviable, they certainly boosted jobs and votes in the predominantly Labour areas in which they were built.

Now, it looks as though the muscular European Research Group is holding the Tory party hostage at the moment and will probably crown Mrs May’s successor.

A key plank of their doctrine is a reversal of our ruinous, current defence strategy, a reversal based on responsibility and the fact that it will garner votes.

But, while I’m sure the former is right and principled, I’m not convinced by the latter.

I never met a voter in my old constituency (which has a huge ex-service population) who preferred a new warship to a new hospital ward or more soldiers to more coppers.

Isn’t it time to trim our forces to a minimum and use the money elsewhere?

Of course we have enemies, but Mr Corbyn’s track record suggests that he’d appease – not oppose – them, while the Tories don’t have the courage to use what forces we have!

That’s nonsense, of course.

We may not have columns of ships, aircraft and troops heading towards this country but we have seen weapons of mass destruction used on our streets, armed attacks in Ulster most days, assaults on our cyberspace, Islamist terrorism killing our citizens and a world more dangerously chaotic than it has been for years.

For pity’s sake, Mr Corbyn and Mrs May: wake up. Tell us how you’ll defend us – and not in a slippery, weaselly, Westminster way but in a way that reflects the trust we should be able to place in our country’s leaders at a time when there are many who believe that strong leadership has never been in such short supply.

Patrick Mercer OBE is a former soldier. He was previously Conservative MP for Newark.