Dr Julian Lewis: May I begin with a double apology? My first apology is for the fact that, unfortunately, as is so often the case, I have committed to addressing a group of people about the workings of the Intelligence and Security Committee. That is at 4 o’clock, so I will not be able to return in time for the wind-ups, and I apologise to both Front-Bench teams and to the House more widely for that. My second apology is for the fact that, having only yesterday stepped off a transatlantic plane, my contribution today may be slightly more incoherent even than usual. [Hon. Members: "No, no!"] On cue, all my hon. Friends rush in to disagree, and I am very touched by that.
Seldom does a decade go by without one realising how brilliantly foresighted George Orwell’s classic political novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was for one reason or another, whether it be on state surveillance, the abuse of linguistics, or – as is relevant to this debate – the constantly shifting conflicts that arise between blocs of countries. Orwell may have had in mind the dilemma of the democracies in the inter-war years, which were torn between confronting Nazism and appeasing it, and between confronting Bolshevism and learning to live with it. Often, the reason why people found that to be such a dilemma was that they felt that they could not do both, and they were not sure which was the greater of the two evils.
These days, one might say that we are in a similar position. The democracies are faced with at least two worrying blocs: the Russia, Iran and Syria axis; and the movement of jihadism on an international scale – this is extremely topical – involving not only the takeover of Muslim countries but the infiltration of non-Muslim countries and the carrying out of terrorist acts there. Whichever side one takes as to which conflict is the more important or which enemy is the greater, the one thing we can all agree on is that we are living in dangerous times indeed. Even the one thing that everybody thought had gone away, namely the traditional Cold War threat from the former Soviet Union, has reappeared. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves whether we are spending enough on defence.
I propose to adopt the Speaker Bercow speech essential that has been drummed into me over 30 long years, which is that any speech, in the House of Commons or elsewhere, should preferably have one main point. My one main point is that I want to hear from the Government that as long as this Government and this Prime Minister are in office, this country will never spend less than the recommended NATO 2% minimum.
My mind goes back – that is the trouble; it happens to people when they have been in this place for a long time – to the beginning of 2007, when the Daily Telegraph reported the Conservatives as bemoaning the fact that
"defence spending as a proportion of the UK’s gross domestic product is at its lowest since 1930".
The article stated:
"Government figures show that 2.5 per cent of the UK’s GDP – or around £32 billion – was likely to be spent on defence in 2005/6 compared with 4.4 per cent in 1987/88."
Of course, we know what had happened between the late 1980s and the early 21st century. The Cold War had come to an end and there had been something called the Peace Dividend, so obviously defence spending had declined as a proportion of GDP.
In fact, in 2007, when the Conservatives were sitting on the Opposition Benches, we made much of the fact that when the Labour Government of Tony Blair had come into office they had reduced defence spending as a percentage of GDP in successive years. It went from 2.9% to 2.6%, to 2.8%, to 2.7%, to 2.7% again, to 2.5%, to 2.5% again, to 2.6% and so on. The bit we really did not like about that was that within the rough figure of 2.5% at which it settled was included the cost of the two ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, costs that were officially met from the Treasury reserve but that in reality were effectively met from the core defence budget. If the total figure was 2.5%, it did not really matter which budget was taking the cut, as it were, but effectively the real defence budget was much nearer 2.1% or 2.2%. That is where we stand at the moment, including the costs of our current military operational deployments. I must give immense congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (John Baron), who has consistently raised that point. As he pointed out, the figures quoted in the Financial Times on 16 June suggested that
"the UK’s military expenditure will hit 1.9% of the size of the country’s economy by 2017,"
which would, of course, be below the NATO target of 2%.
I found it almost incredible that this Government would ever dip below the 2% NATO GDP recommended minimum, so I have been trying to get the Prime Minister to confirm that we would do no such thing. I have not been doing too well. There was an exchange on 26 March in which the Prime Minister said:
"We should encourage other countries to do what Britain is doing in matching our at-least-2% contribution in terms of GDP and defence spending."
I thought that that was an opportunity for me to be helpful to him – as I like to be when I can – and I intervened and said:
"May I take it from what the Prime Minister has just said that there is then no question of the British defence budget dropping below 2% of GDP?"
His answer was:
"We currently meet the 2% threshold. These things are calculated by different countries in different ways, but I am confident that we will go on meeting our obligations to NATO." – [Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 359.]
That sounded reasonably encouraging, but he did not actually say that we were going to keep on spending the 2%, so I tried again on 7 May. This time, I asked whether he would
"confirm that under his leadership this country will never spend less than the NATO recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence",
to which the answer was:
"We are spending in excess of 2% and we are one of the only countries in Europe to do that. The Greeks, I believe, are spending more than 2% but, if I can put it this way, not all on things that are useful for all of NATO. We should continue to make sure we fulfil all our commitments on defence spending." – [Official Report, 7 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 147.]
My final attempt was on 4 June when I again asked the Prime Minister to give that commitment, and he said:
"It is very important to meet such commitments. We will set our detailed plans in our manifesto, but throughout the time for which I have been Prime Minister, we have kept – more than kept – that commitment". – [Official Report, 4 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 23-24.]
This is all very encouraging stuff and I like to think that the thing is that we have a NATO Summit coming up –
Mr Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman need only to look at the Red Book, where the figures used in the Financial Times are quite clear. There is no need to wait for the manifesto.
Dr Lewis: I am talking about trying to get a future commitment. I want to hear that as long as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is Prime Minister this country will always spend the NATO recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. We have not quite had that commitment yet. He might be intending to make that commitment at the NATO Summit and to encourage other NATO countries to do the same, in which case I will applaud him. I do not wish to spoil his timing.
I will conclude with this point: it is necessary and understandable that this country’s intelligence services have a policy of 'neither confirm, nor deny' in certain areas, but I do not think that that policy will do for this country’s Government when it comes to saying how much, as a minimum, we will spend on the defence of the United Kingdom.