John Woodcock: PM's lost battle to defend arms tour

Prime ministerial foreign trips can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride at the best of times.

Gordon Brown's certainly were, and I am assured that it wasn't only his team whose best-laid plans were foiled by the unexpected things that happen when you bundle the political press lobby into the back of a 747 and fly them halfway around the world.

For all its difficulties, though, the previous government never chose to press on with a defence exports mission at the very moment it was forced to revoke export licences to countries for fear that equipment would be used against their own people.

David Cameron clearly faced a difficult decision as soon as he realised that the timing of his trip to the Gulf last week was singularly awful.

On the one hand, these trade missions require meticulous preparation to bring together the diaries of many very senior people, both the Brits on the plane and those in the host countries. Postponement is not a decision you can take lightly.

On the other hand, it hardly needs stressing that this was not the best moment to attempt to open up new foreign markets for the UK defence industry, important though that is and as closely supervised as the exports process undoubtedly is.

But what did remain in the PM's hands was how he chose to explain the trip once he had made the decision to press on. A stop-off in Cairo was added: he was there anyway and it would have been odd to pass up the opportunity to be the first foreign leader to visit the country since Mubarak stepped down. Yet attempting to make out that this was the focus of the week was a bit much.

As Ed Miliband rightly said this week: 'Trying to pretend a trade mission for defence manufacturers and other businesses is a "democracy tour" doesn't cut it.'

I can almost hear the briefing to the hacks in the huddle at the back of the aeroplane, and I feel a bit sorry for whoever was asked to give it.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown.

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