The Chancellor is under pressure to scale back on Defence cuts
By Jonathan Owen and Jane Merrick
Independent on Sunday – 31 May 2015
A leading Tory MP has savaged his own party’s record on Defence, saying that the previous Labour Government had been more “strategic” on the future of the Armed Forces while the Tories had left Britain’s capabilities “enfeebled”.
Julian Lewis, who is standing for election as chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, has joined the growing number of leading figures calling for the Government to commit to spending 2 per cent of GDP on Defence, and arguing that the UK should in fact be spending far more than the NATO minimum requirement.
Mr Lewis’s intervention was echoed by the former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West, who said that Britain risked becoming a foreign policy “irrelevance” and its Defence capability was “balanced on a knife-edge” unless money was spent on the Armed Forces. MPs and Defence experts are alarmed at plans by George Osborne to slash £1bn from the Ministry of Defence’s annual budget of £36.5bn.
In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, Mr Lewis – a former member of the … Intelligence and Security Committee – warned against a “race to the [NATO] minimum” of 2 per cent GDP because this should be only the “starting point” for Britain to defend itself. The MP for New Forest East said:
“I very much take the view that the Labour Party got it right in 1998 when they spent about a year and a half ... doing a very deep and comprehensive review of our strategic needs. The 1997–98 Labour Strategic Defence Review was strategic but unfunded, whereas the 2010 Conservative Strategic Defence and Security Review was funded but it was unstrategic.
“What you need is a combination of the two. The problem was that they [Labour] didn’t, of course, put the resources necessary to meet all those problems – but it would be a mistake then to do the opposite, which is what the Conservatives have tended to do since 2010, which is to say, right, what are we going to spend and how much of the threat can we ameliorate for that sum of money?”
“The important point about the NATO minimum is that it is just that – that it is a minimum and many people would be far from content, in a situation of increased threats from different directions and of different natures, to be spending only the NATO minimum.
“It has come as a considerable shock to Defence-minded MPs that there should be any question over this. In some respects, politicians can be accused of a race, if not to the bottom, a race to the minimum. And the minimum isn’t, in many of our views, adequate anyway.
“What one ought to do is say, well, we’re spending the minimum as a starting point, then we will make our strategic assessment of the world in which we live and the potential threats we face, and then we will decide how much more than the minimum we can invest.”
Mr Lewis criticised David Cameron’s pledge to safeguard spending on the NHS and international aid while allowing Defence to be cut, saying:
“Part of the problem is that the Government has boxed itself in, and this is the trouble when governments of all complexions do not think strategically and box themselves in by making what sounds like worthy commitments to ring-fence preferred departments.
“Our forces have already taken considerable reductions in resources and in size at a time when threats have been multiplying … our Intelligence and Security Services are well-resourced, well-led and largely doing the job we would be entitled to expect them to do. Our Armed Forces, by contrast, are not well-resourced: they have taken severe cuts, the threats are growing, and the decision-making process for formulating a strategy and ensuring we react in a logical way to crises as they develop – that decision-making process, if not completely broken, is certainly enfeebled.”
Mr Lewis, who [together with John Baron MP] led the revolt against military action in Syria in the summer of 2013, warned against admitting new members to NATO in case it dragged Britain and other long-standing members of the alliance into another World War:
“We should not be egging on countries that are not members of NATO to be defiant of their Russian neighbours, any more than it would have been right during the Cold War years for us to encourage uprisings in Czechoslovakia, Hungary or [the former] East Germany when we would not be able to go to their assistance.
“People are very blasé about extending NATO membership, and I’m totally opposed to the suggestion of extending NATO membership to countries such as Ukraine or Georgia, because you’ve got to ask yourself one question: would you be prepared to start a Third World War in defence of that country? Because if you extended the guarantee, and then dishonoured it, the whole basis for NATO’s deterrent would disappear.”
The Chancellor is under pressure to scale back planned Defence cuts in his Budget in July. Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour security minister, told the Lords:
“We must not delude ourselves. We are at a turning point. Unless more money is found for Defence, Defence is in a crisis. We are balanced on a knife-edge. Without an increase in Defence spending, we are on a road to disaster. The Navy and the other military forces will not be able to do what the nation expects of them.”