“The Lamps going out all over Europe and I doubt we will see them go on again in our lifetime”, observed Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the Great War. Things today may not be quite as bad as that moment or as this story in the Sunday Times suggests, but are nevertheless disconcerting.

But assuming the report to be an accurate and fair statement of the events, then we could be forgiven for thinking that the Ministry of Defence (MoD)is on the skids financially.

In essence tens of thousand of servicemen and service women all over the UK effectively ‘laid off’ after the Christmas and New Year Break in a move which, if carried out by a public quoted company would almost certainly have to be reported to the Stock Exchange. Indeed a company and its directors which trades in such circumstances, that is of continuing to operate whilst not having the wherewithal to meet its obligations, runs the risk of prosecution for fraudulent trading:

The MoD admitted this weekend that the army “across the whole of the UK” had been placed on what was in effect extended leave, running into this week.

Naturally, when first challenged about this the MoD lied. That this should now be the routine response of any ministry to such challenges is a matter for considerable concern but, in view of the debauching of trust in the system of government information by the likes of Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell (the most interesting propaganda chief since April 1945), Gordon Brown and Charlie Whelan, unsurprising.

Anyway they lied at first and then admitted that the military had effectively been told to take a few extras days off, indeed a whole week off. This has been spun as an extra ‘thank you’ in view of all the fine service of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Few these days believe the spin unless it is corroborated by an unimpeachable source, which this does not have. The truth is almost certainly otherwise.

Thus, as you might expect, behind this sudden and unexpected largesse on the part of the MoD lies a more worrying piece of information: that the real motive was to save the best part of a week’s bills on electricity, gas and so on that would otherwise be consumed in army accommodation, mess halls, training venues and so on. So out went the lamps and the radiators too.

In the real world of business and commerce it is only those companies which are fighting off foreclosure by the banks that normally engage in such parsimony. So what is happening at the MoD? Are they so strapped for cash that they cannot afford to keep their troops in electricity?

One person leaving a comment on the Times report said that this happened last year as well.

There is, as always, a hidden side to all this. A week’s training in the world of industry and business may not seem much and may well not matter much. But in the army, where next week you may find yourself in a vicious firefight with a load of Taleban wackos bent on both martyrdom and the tender attentions of the usual 72 virgins (or is it 73 this week?), curtailing training by a week may mean that something which might save the life of a young Private soldier in the field goes untaught. In preparation for war, training is the bedrock of minimising casualties.

And what sort of message does it send out, in particular to those thinking of joining up? A very negative one, of a prospective employer that cannot afford to put the lights on. Will a young man or woman be minded to trust their prospective employer to have enough cash to make sure they have the right drugs and health care when they get shot? Or enough money to be able to run the CASEVAC helicopter to get them to the operating table?

Perhaps nincompoop part-time Minister Des Browne might care to enlighten us as to what the situation with cash really is in the light of this report.

When, that is, he is next free from his Scottish Office duties which take up the other half of his time.