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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Spin to blame for arms sale debacle
Hawk trainer jets
British-made Hawk jets are at the centre of the row

For the umpteenth time, the government has been dropped in it by its own spin doctors - this time over the hugely controversial issue of arms sales.

Last weekend it was reported that Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt had "signed an order" blocking all weapons exports to India and Pakistan.

But on Monday morning, Downing Street bluntly slapped down the suggestion, insisting there was "no embargo, no suspension" of arms sales to the two countries.

The prime minister's spokesman pointed out that any applications for export licences would be dealt with on a case by case basis and, at the moment, there was nothing to rule on.

The incompatibility of the two statements led to confusion throughout Westminster as MPs and journalists attempted to reconcile them.

And it later became clear that Downing Street was irritated, to say the least, that someone in the DTI had engaged in some "over-zealous" briefing.

British jobs

The government is deeply worried about the effect such announcements might have on future deals with the countries, particularly the planned 1bn sale of Hawk trainer jets to India and, it has now emerged, possible future sale of Sea Harriers.

Jack Straw
Mr Straw is in South Asia
Thousands of British jobs hang on these deals and, by the time they come into effect - 2004 at the earliest for the Hawk sale - the situation in the region will almost certainly have changed.

These are serious considerations, as is the question of the government's much-ridiculed ethical foreign policy.

The whole question of whether previous arms sales to these countries should have been considered ethical is a separate matter and one that will undoubtedly see ministers under fire from those who oppose such trade.

But there need not have been any confusion or row over this specific issue.

Not for the first time, it was the attempt to spin it that caused the damage.

Announcement 'backfires'

It has been confirmed that Ms Hewitt did briefly discuss arms exports to the two countries with both Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon at last Thursday's cabinet.

And it appears they reached the quite reasonable conclusion that, while licences already granted could not be un-granted, any new applications would now have to be scrutinised in the light of the prevailing situation and the rule that nothing should be done that would threaten peace and security in the region.

In other words, it would be highly unlikely that any attempt to flog arms to either country at the moment would be agreed until the situation had "normalised."

But following last Thursday's decision, it appears someone in the DTI was putting it about that Ms Hewitt had, in effect, ordered an immediate block on arms exports to India and Pakistan.

No doubt this was done to boost the impression of an ethical foreign policy at work but, unsurprisingly, it backfired.

'Joined-up' government

The stories about an embargo appeared just a day before Mr Straw set off for the region in an attempt to do whatever he can to avert full-scale war.

Arriving in Islamabad and Delhi with threats of an arms embargo tucked up his sleeve would not be designed to ease his task.

At least the position has now been clarified but, once again, it has raised the issue of how government policies are "revealed" to the media.

It also shows the much-vaunted "joined-up government" is still more a hope than a reality.

It has also re-heated the debate over whether there can ever be any such thing as an ethical foreign policy so long as the government is engaged in the arms trade.

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Talking PointTALKING POINT
Fuel to the fire?
Should Britain sell arms to India and Pakistan?
See also:

28 May 02 | UK Politics
28 May 02 | UK Politics
27 May 02 | South Asia
24 May 02 | South Asia
27 May 02 | UK Politics
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