In Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph, two more Tory heavyweights weighed into the Party’s brewing battle over the parlous state of the defence budget, which our editor has discussed.
Each approaches the same theme – Britain’s role in the world and the Armed Forces’ contribution to it – from a different angle.
First Michael Fallon, so recently holder of the defence brief himself, sets out in blunt terms the sheer breadth of the security threats facing the UK, which he outlined at greater length in a speech to the Defence and Security Forum on Monday. Not only is Russia overhauling its armed forces and clearly willing to use them, but:
“The Middle East and North Africa remain launch pads for further extremist attacks on our cities. In the Pacific, a nuclear North Korea threatens Japan and the United States – even London is within range. Then there’s cyber, a threat from anywhere, any time. Our enemies can steal our information, disrupt our energy supplies, even our government systems.”
This diversity of danger is important because it robs ministers of the defence that what look like cuts are simply adaptations to twenty-first century warfare. Yes, we need new cyber-security investment – on top of an army which can make a meaningful contribution to Europe’s defence and a globally-capable blue-water navy.
Elsewhere William Hague puts the defence debate in its broader context. Brexit has put the UK’s global position in the spotlight, he argues, and allies and enemies alike are watching carefully for signs of how a post-EU Britain will conduct itself on the world stage.
Cuts to the Armed Forces, compounded by a reduced diplomatic presence in Africa and Asia as the Foreign Office redeploys resources to Europe, all serve to undercut the idea of ‘global Britain’ and suggest that our departure from the European Union really might be the retreat from the world that Remainers always said it was.
The row over defence has been brewing for years – we wrote about the need for an independent Britain to rebuild an independent military in the summer of 2016 – but the Government has been so consumed by Brexit that little has been done to change course.
Now the Prime Minister faces only hard choices. To continue to neglect the defence budget not only puts the security of the nation at risk, it could push this Tory revolt into something which might threaten her fragile premiership. Yet fixing it would mean either more borrowing or higher taxes, each of which present new opportunities for Jeremy Corbyn’s revivified Opposition – and then diverting any funds raised away from the Party’s retail offer to voters in 2022.
Perhaps the best hope of those overseeing the Kingdom’s security is that the numerous threats outlined by Fallon have a political effect, and make being ‘strong on defence’ the potent vote-winner it was during the Cold War. Until then it seems doomed to be one of those issues where duty pulls one way, and expediency the other.