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Ministers and mandarins will resent implication they do not care about the military as much as Defence Secretary

By Ewen MacAskill, Defence Correspondent

Guardian – 26 June 2018

A senior civil servant, surveying media coverage over the last few days, expressed exasperation with warring cabinet ministers. He was not, for once, referring to the battle over Brexit but to an increasingly bitter stand-off over the future of British defence.

“It is open season at the moment,”

the well-placed civil servant said, referring to a series of stories he assumed had been planted by the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, or his allies over the defence budget, and a series of counter-blasts by the Treasury.

There are two issues at stake. One is minor and personal: Williamson’s ambition to become Prime Minister, which is dependent on holding on to the support of a core of Tory backbenchers for whom defence remains a top priority. The other is more fundamental for the UK: whether the country is finally ready to abandon pretensions to be a major power and accept it is a medium power and adopts a defence budget to match.

The MoD budget for 2016/17 was £35.3bn, set to rise to £39.6bn in 2020-21. Williamson argues this is not enough to fund all the military capabilities the UK needs, especially in the face of a resurgent Russia, and wants an extra £20bn over the next decade. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who is already committed to an extra £20bn for the NHS over a shorter period, told Williamson last week there was no extra money for defence.

The row has its origins in July last year, when the Cabinet Office announced the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, would conduct a review of the threats facing the UK and the capabilities needed to meet them. His brief was to look at the UK security needs in the round, taking in the intelligence agencies as well as the MoD. He was also to evaluate the risks posed by terrorists and cyber-attacks as well as from conventional forces.

By the autumn, it was clear the intelligence agencies had come out on top and the MoD was looking at being forced to make cuts, with options ranging from reducing the size of the army from 77,000 to 70,000, cutting 1,000 Royal Marines and decommissioning two specialist amphibious-landing ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.

There was a consensus among mandarins involved in the negotiations the UK was less likely to need two specialist amphibious landing ships than the ability to defend against a cyber-attack on its infrastructure or financial networks. But there was a backlash from an informal coalition led by Williamson, appointed in November, and the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis, as well as a score or more Conservative MPs (and Labour ones with defence jobs in their constituencies), Conservative-leaning newspapers and former generals.

One of the arguments from Tory backbenchers was the military were disproportionately represented in negotiations dominated by politicians with no military background and by the intelligence agencies.

The counter-arguments were little aired in the media: that the UK should abandon its adherence to tradition and instead build a modern force, a pared-down one, with lower spending levels closer to comparable Europeans neighbours. Compared with the UK’s 2.1% of GDP spent on defence, France spends 1.79%, Germany 1.2% (though it is in the process of raising this), Italy 1.1% and Spain 0.9%.

It is against this background that Theresa May last week asked Williamson: does the UK have to be a “tier-one” country, with nuclear, cyber and conventional forces, able to fight anywhere in the world?

Sedwill makes a related point, in evidence to MPs or in public lectures, saying it is unlikely the UK would ever have to fight a major war on its own: instead it would be as part of NATO or some other multilateral body. The logic of this is the UK does not have to every capability as long as another member of NATO has it.

Much of the MoD’s spending problems are of its own making, its budget distorted by highly-expensive projects whose value is questionable, such as two new aircraft carriers, due to be operational by 2023 but struggling to pay for enough American F-35s to fly off them as well as being an inviting and vulnerable target for a missile attack.

The Treasury had been slow to engage with the MoD, leaving Williamson and his allies dominating the media agenda. But it is finally fighting back. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, on Sunday and Monday and again in a speech on Tuesday night, warned cabinet colleagues – though the message was aimed directly at Williamson – any extra spending would mean tax rises.

Treasury ministers in private resent the implication they do not care about defence as much as Williamson – not least Hammond, as a former Defence Secretary. They have a lot of points still to make about the defence budget, such as the failure of the MoD, in spite of repeated assurances, to make the billions in efficiency savings it claims it can achieve.

The Treasury is not minded to help Williamson out: not in time for the NATO summit in Brussels in July or in the budget in the autumn or in next year’s spending review. Nor will May, even in a world in which displays of disloyalty over Brexit have become commonplace, have been amused by the Mail on Sunday splash reporting Williamson threatening to break her if he fails to secure a budget increase.

Williamson’s allies deny he was behind the Mail on Sunday story but that has not allayed suspicions elsewhere in Whitehall. And that is dangerous for him.

[NOTE; For the significance of this story, click here.]