The threat that next month's budget will include large cuts in defence spending – perhaps as much as £1 billion – has brought out the worst in the Tory right.
"If the Chancellor is looking for areas to cut," fulminated Winston Churchill MP in the House of Commons on Monday, "surely it is in the abuse of social security that he should be looking." "Defence spending has already been cut much too far, in order to pay for ludicrous welfare benefits," echoed Lord Wyatt of Weeford in the Times the next day. "Billions go on untaxed child benefits enjoyed by millions of the comfortably off, who would not suffer without them. The scandal of the rising billions spent on invalidity benefit continues. Theft from the NHS costs £500 million a year . .."
Already there are rumblings of a revolt by the Tories' barmy back-bench bastards when the budget comes to the vote, which if it happens will be the most serious challenge to John Major's authority certainly since publication of Margaret Thatcher's memoirs and perhaps since the rebellion over Maastricht.
It is tempting in the circumstances for the opposition parties to sit back and watch the spectacle of the Tories yet again tearing themselves apart. But the temptation should be resisted. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to make it clear how they would do things differently from the government – and that means more than merely calling for a "proper" defence review.
The brutal reality is that the very basis of Britain's defence policy is obsolete. Apart from Northern Ireland, the raison d'etre of the British military since the late 1940s has been to sustain a key element in the deterrence, and if necessary repulsion, of an attack on western Europe by the Soviet Union and its allies. That is why Britain is a member of Nato, why it retains a substantial army and a large airforce in Germany, why it has nuclear missile submarines and a significant navy. It is also why the defence sector is such an important part of the British economy.
It was always arguable whether the actual threat from the Soviet Union justified the scale of the British military: even at the height of the cold war, the left argued that defence policy-makers misunderstood Soviet intentions and that the over-emphasis on military preparedness distorted the British economy.
Today, however, the problem is of an entirely different order. Put simply, the Soviet threat has ceased to exist with the demise of the Soviet Union. And, however unpleasant Boris Yeltsin or his successors might be, the chances of something comparable re-emerging within the next 20 or 30 years are extremely slim.
Of course, the world of the "new world order" is no more peaceful than the world of the cold war: there are currently some 50 hot wars raging across the globe, one of them, in Bosnia, on the edge of western Europe. There are still roles for the British military in peacekeeping, protecting humanitarian relief efforts and, more often than the government thinks, intervening directly to defend democracies against aggression.
But such roles require a military that is much smaller and, equally importantly, has a very different shape and very different equipment. So far, there has been little progress since the end of the cold war in reducing the size of the armed forces and none whatsoever in changing their structure and hardware to suit the new conditions.
There has been no redefinition of Britain's defence roles: the slimmed down forces are supposed simply to be doing a little less of just what they were doing before. Britain remains committed to retaining nuclear weapons, an army and an airforce in Germany, and a navy capable of patrolling most of the North Atlantic Ocean.
The only large procurement project to be cancelled in the past three years has been the embryonic "sub-strategic" tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile, pronounced dead by Malcolm Rifkind this week, which only ever became a big deal at the very end of the cold war after the INF treaty outlawed land-based medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. The government remains committed to such projects as the European Fighter Aircraft and the Challenger 2 tank, which make no sense except as job-creation schemes now that the cold war is over.
Virtually nothing has been done to help with the conversion of military factories to civilian production. Tens of thousands of workers in the defence industries have lost their jobs; tens of thousands more face the dole in the next four or five years.
All this makes the Tories vulnerable to attack on defence from the left for the first time in years. Yet Labour has had almost nothing to say on defence policy beyond grumbling about "Treasury-led" defence spending cuts, and the Liberal Democrats are not much better. At times, it appears that the opposition would like to restore the government's cuts.
Part of the problem is, of course, that both parties have their eyes on marginal seats in areas of the south and south-west hit by cuts in defence spending – and indeed a crude unqualified call for defence spending cuts, as advanced by some on the Labour left, would be not only electoral suicide but wrong. Millions rely on the defence industries for their livelihoods, and they no more deserve to be thrown on to the dole than miners or hospital workers.
But there is every reason to believe that a well-presented case for planned conversion of military industries and redefinition of Britain's defence roles could strike a chord even in those parts of the country reliant on defence spending. That the opposition has failed to produce anything approaching a reasoned alternative to the Tories' shambles on defence is symptomatic of an appalling loss of nerve.