The current mood of unease about the war of Afghanistan constitutes a dangerous moment for Gordon Brown. Here's today's Journal column.
It is one of those enduring yet misleading clichés of British political life that in times of war or national emergency, the public invariably and instinctively rallies towards the government.
Certainly, when civilian lives are threatened on the mainland, it is a rule that by and large holds true. It is not so very long ago that Gordon Brown’s popularity soared in the wake of a series of terrorist incidents which he was deemed to have handled well.
But history shows that wars more often break than make governments, and for Mr Brown, the war in Afghanistan is proving a rather different proposition.
The loss of 15 British soldiers’ lives in a fortnight has not only seen the conflict return to the top of the political agenda for the first time in seven years, it has led to some searching questions for the Prime Minister about the purpose and conduct of the whole operation.
There has always been a hard core of outright opposition to the conflict, ever since it was first launched as part of George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ in the wake of 9/11.
But those who opposed the war on principle have now been joined by a growing number of people who, while sympathetic to the cause, believe the government is guilty of letting down ‘Our Boys.’
Mr Brown insists that none of the recent losses were down to shortages of equipment or helicopters or men, as has been variously claimed by Opposition MPs and Army chiefs.
Nevertheless, the suspicion persists that government penny-pinching is, if not directly leading to solidiers’ deaths, certainly hampering their task in what is an already difficult situation.
That was the essence of the accusation made by the Commons’ backbench defence select committee in its report this week.
Although it stopped short of saying that servicemen were dying because of a lack of helicopters, the committee clearly believes the government is making things more difficult than they need to be.
Chairman James Arbuthnot said: “Operational commanders in the field are unable to undertake potentially valuable operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the theatre of operations.”
Head of the Army General Sir Richard Dannatt, who is becoming increasingly outspoken as he approaches retirement, added that “more boots” were needed in order to keep the Taliban at bay.
The mood of dissatisfaction with Mr Brown’s conduct of the war has also been reflected in criticism of his choice of Bob Ainsworth as defence secretary in his recent reshuffle, and his subsequent ranking as 21st out of 23 in the Cabinet hierarchy.
This is desperately unfair on Mr Ainsworth, a stalwart minister who is one of those increasingly rarities in today’s Labour Party, namely a fully paid-up member of the working-class.
But Mr Brown’s decision to appoint a relative unknown to such a pivotal post in the midst of a desperately difficult conflict has inevitably raised questions over his judgement.
It does not help Mr Ainsworth’s cause that he is the fourth defence secretary in as many years, following in the footsteps of John Reid, Des Browne and John Hutton.
This point was well made by the former head of the Army, General Sir Michael Jackson, who himself worked with three defence secretaries in his three and a half years in the job.
“I think as a matter of principle it is better that such key positions as defence secretary are held on a longer term to provide continuity,” he said.
Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute said defence secretaries needed “stature and respect” which had to be earned over time.
It seems we have moved a very long way from the days of Denis Healey and Michael Heseltine when the defence job was seen as effectively the fourth great office of state after Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.
But this is essentially a row not about personalities or status in the Cabinet pecking-order, but about money.
The crux of the accusation against Mr Brown is that, as Chancellor, he failed to give a high enough priority to defence spending, and that, as Prime Minister, he is now paying the political price of that.
At a time when more and more British lives are being lost by the day, this is a highly dangerous accusation for the Prime Minister.
At the current rate of casualties, it is only a matter of time before a specific death becomes linked to a specific cutback, and that would be a perilous moment indeed for Mr Brown.
The ‘War of Terror’ has never been the great vote-winner for Labour that, for instance, the Falklands War was for Mrs Thatcher. Coupled with the Iraq conflict, there is a strong argument for saying that the entire New Labour project was blown permanently off-course by it.
It helped do for Tony Blair. Could it now help drive the final nail in Mr Brown’s political coffin, too?
It has been said that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won in Helmand Province, but it could be lost there, and a similar point could be made about Mr Brown’s premiership.
The war in Afghanistan will not win the Prime Minister the popularity he so desperately seeks - but it could well lose him what little support he still retains.