By Ben Riley-Smith, Political Editor,
Daily Telegraph – 15 November 2022
Rishi Sunak has declined to promise he will keep Liz Truss's Defence spending target of three per of GDP by 2030, opening the door for the pledge to be abandoned. Speaking to reporters on the plane to the G20 summit in Bali, the Prime Minister instead pointed to the UK's success in hitting the current NATO two per cent target. The Daily Telegraph revealed on Saturday how Defence spending is set to fall in real terms in the next two years after the Treasury refused to sign off new rises. The unwillingness of Mr Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, to scale up Defence spending since the Russian invasion of Ukraine could undercut criticism of the Kremlin to be delivered at the G20.
It also looks set to be a growing point of tension with Tory backbenchers in the coming months, who have long been campaigning for a bigger Ministry of Defence budget. But a new boost to Britain's Defence capabilities has been announced, with Mr Sunak confirming five new Type 26 frigates will be constructed to help defend the Trident nuclear deterrent. That is in addition to the three already being made. The UK has in recent years been exceeding the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP each year. But Ms Truss vowed to increase that to three per cent by the end of this decade.
Asked if he would keep the target, Mr Sunak said:
"You talk about my predecessor's target. My other predecessor before that's target was an aspiration to get to 2.5 per cent. That was Boris [Johnson]'s target when he was at the NATO summit. And then the NATO target itself is two per cent. For a long time we were one of only three or four countries to actually meet our NATO target. I'm glad now that that number's gone up … So now I think at last count … we're the second largest Defence spender in NATO. So, no-one can say that we do not have a very strong position on Defence."
Julian Lewis, Tory chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committeedefenc, warned this year that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, would see scrapping the three per cent target as a sign of "weakness". Asked about the warning, Mr Sunak said:
"Last week we announced 1,000 missiles, air Defence missiles that are going over to Ukraine... as well as the training that we're doing with Jens Stoltenberg [the NATO general secretary]. I don't think Putin or anyone else can look at that and say in any way that we're weak."
Last night, Mr Lewis said:
"Jeremy Hunt has gone on the record previously saying we should increase our Defence budget to four per cent of GDP. I can understand why he may want to alter the timetable, but the figure of three per cent is the bare minimum we should be seeking in the medium term."