Are we entering the silly season on Brexit?

What was Lord Howard thinking of, sounding off about the Prime Minister being ready to unleash what passes for our military might in the general direction of Madrid? Has he gone stark raving mad? 

When my wife and I used to run into Michael Howard at various London “do’s,” usually in the line for sausage rolls, he was invariably polite. To the best of my recollection, he never threatened to go to war with anyone. But now he has apparently contracted Falklands fever.

Like most Brits, I was upset and offended when I learned that the Spanish Government had somehow managed to throw Gibraltar into the Brexit mix. It seemed unfair and underhand. I wondered how we would respond, never imagining that Mrs May and Boris Johnson, egged on by Michael Howard, might actually contemplate a repeat of the raid that led to the capture of the Rock in 1704. For goodness sake, Gibraltar is where we keep our gunboats. 

But, having thought about it, I realise that it was just an April Fool’s joke gone wrong.

Let me remind you of the present state of our armed forces. The RAF has barely enough warplanes to deter Iceland, let alone Spain. Most of our amusingly-named Eurofighters, otherwise know as Typhoons, are grounded. We are desperately short of tankers and transporter aircraft. The bulk of our kit is old and mothballed. It wouldn’t surprise me if, should push come to shove, we sent up our Memorial Flight of Spitfires and Lancasters. 

The British Army, with just 80,000 full-time personnel, packs less of a punch than it did in 1939. We boast that we are the strongest military power in Europe, and maybe we are. But that’s not saying much. After all the cuts in manpower and equipment of the last 20 years, we have fewer trained units available than the  state of Texas. British regiments were adequate at best during the occupation of Iraq. Our record in Helmand, in Afghanistan, was such that the Americans ordered us out. Whatever chutzpah the British fighting man once possessed has been bred out of the system, which these days is all about gender equality, playing by the rules and keeping risk to a minimum. Our post-boy soldiers, the SAS, are some 500-strong; the Royal Marines, already reduced to just 7,500 full-timers, are about to be cut again. 

Worst of all is the condition of the Navy, which has shrivelled to a size that would cause Churchill to despair. Five years from now, if we are lucky, we will have two fine aircraft carriers. Today, we have none. Zero. Zilch. And no naval attack aircraft. We have six destroyers, none of which works properly, all of which urgently require new engines. Our frigates are few and outdated and we can’t afford to replace them. HMS Ocean, our one assault ship, is scheduled to be decommissioned, leaving us with two “landing platform docks,” HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, with which to launch any future assaults. None of our warships has a proper complement of weapons, especially missiles. After a week or so without resupply from America, we would run out of shells.

I suppose we could nuke Spain, if our two functioning ballistic missile submarines could, as it were, manage to get up steam, but that seems a bit over the top in a dispute over a territory with a population smaller than Bury St Edmunds.

I say all this with a note of exasperation in my voice that I hope comes across on-screen. Britain has not been so weak and vulnerable to attack since the spring of 1940, when at least we had Fighter Command and a full panoply of battleships to protect our backs. The idea that we might invade Spain (what does that even mean?) is not only preposterous in itself – they’re our allies, not our enemy – but just the other day, the PM was boasting of our role defending Europe from external threats. And the fact is that, defending their own territory and with the help of the EU,  Spain might even see us off, or at least hold us off until the Americans came in to tell us not to be so bloody ridiculous. 

(Mind you, with Donald Trump in the White House, who knows? He might seize the chance to launch a second D-Day.)

But enough nonsense, please. If we want to be Europe’s paramount military power, we are going to have to starting spending, not cutting. You don’t get bigger by becoming smaller.  Otherwise, we should accept that soft power, though cheap and cheerless, is the way ahead. In the meantime, maybe the Queen could get on the blower to King Felipe and tell him there’s no risk to his beard.