Some of the Conservative Party’s most knowledgeable foreign affairs specialists are a bit sniffy about Gavin Williamson’s defence policy speech earlier this week. One of its centre pieces was the announcement that “the first operational mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region. “Significantly, British and American F35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing,” he continued, with a nod to our close relationship with America, before speaking of enhancing “the reach and lethality of our armed forces”.
That sounds a lot like a metaphorical, though certainly not a literal, shot across China’s bows in that last case. One senior MP with an interest in security policy told ConservativeHome that he is all for stepping up activity in the South China Sea. But “if you go out every few years for a few months, there’s no point. It doesn’t show strength, it advertises weakness”.
Williamson’s answer to that might be to highlight the £1 billion that he screwed out of Philip Hammond in last autumn’s Budget, which itself came on top of an £800 million increase during the summer. One point of the speech was to signal that he will soon be back for more: after all, there is a £7 billion black hole in the Ministry of Defence’s equipment budgets. Without money to help reduce it, and more, the Defence Secretary will have no chance whatsoever of achieving the aims he set out. These were so striking that it is well worth pondering their implications.
Only a few years ago, when the Coalition Government was formed, Russia was not considered a serious danger to national security at all. It was only last year that Williamson tore up previous assumptions and told the Defence Select Committee that it is now a bigger threat to us than terrorism. And earlier this week, he duly added China to the list of British security problems: “all the while, [it] is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power,” he said. It was the most pro-intervention speech that any Defence Secretary has made since the Iraq War, listing “Kuwait, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo” as earlier, successful, valuable incursions.
Hence his reference not only to cyber and to new drones for the RAF, but to new Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, new equipment for the army, and two naval “littoral strike groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic”.
All this raises three questions. First, is it the Government’s collective position that China is no longer the friend that George Osborne saw it as, but is instead, in effect, a foe – or at least to be treated with a premis of suspicion? Second, are the voters really up for a more interventionist-leaning foreign and defence posture, especially at a time when America seems to be entering a period of relative isolationism? (“We stand ready to support our friends in Ukraine and the Balkans,” the Defence Secretary declared.) Finally, Williamson’s programme implies higher defence spending still. Is the Treasury willing to fund it?
The speech might have been delivered in much the same way were Britain not due to leave the EU. There is no necessary connection between the re-ordering to which the Defence Secretary referred and Brexit. But quitting the EU does make a difference to defence policy. If we are to remain committed to our common continent, that implies solidifying the army presence in Eastern Europe – at a time when its manpower is at its lowest for more than a century. And if we are also to become Global Britain, that suggests extending our reach and capabilities.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Williamson has no military background and, in the Conservative Party, the post that he holds is greatly prized – and seen as almost on a rank with the great offices of state. His promotion was therefore not a popular one, and he has been widely briefed against.
Furthermore, the speech is bound to be read, by a cynical Westminster Village, as a leadership election preparation exercise. Our plea for the Defence Secretary is that he is damned if he does and also if he doesn’t. If he sets out a policy direction, he will be accused of ulterior motives. If he doesn’t, it will be claimed that he has nothing to say.
At a time when Brexit is all-consuming, and most Cabinet Ministers other than Michael Gove seem unwilling to make an impression, it ought to be thoroughly welcome that one of the others is developing a policy, even if you don’t agree it – which by and large we do, as believers in higher defence spending.