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Tory MPs Accuse Government Of Sidestepping Defence Spending Tensions

Members of the UK armed forces training Ukrainian military recruits at a facility in Wiltshire (Alamy)

5 min read

A number of Tory MPs are concerned the Government is sidestepping the issue of defence spending, as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) continues to announce policies to bolster strategy rather than resource.

Defence is an area on which the Conservative party is usually highly trusted by the public, which Government is keen to emphasise ahead of the next general election, which will be called this year. While the Treasury has already committed to putting an extra £25 billion in to the MoD between 2020-2025, the largest sustained increase since the end of the Cold War, there remains concern that this may not be enough in the face of depleted resource, inflation, and weakened global security. 

During a meeting in Florida earlier this week, Foreign Secretary David Cameron reportedly addressed concerns made by Republican nominee for US president Donald Trump about how much the UK is "putting into defence spending", according to the Telegraph. The UK, Australia and US are also weighing up plans for its global security alliance Aukus to partner with Japan.

But several Tory MPs with expertise in defence say they are unconvinced the government has done enough to reform the MoD and provide it with enough funds to bolster the armed forces. There is particular concern that Government has so far refused to commit to spending three per cent of GDP on defence. So far the Prime Minister has committed to increase the target to 2.5 per cent, although no timeframe has been given to achieve this. 

One former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome what made the issue “more pressing” was the continuing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as the perceived threat of China. They felt more of the funding had to be targeted at beefing up the military as well as strengthening the UK's cyber security network.

“The reality is you are never going to win a conflict in Cheltenham,” they said, referring to the government's intelligence headquarters GCHQ, which is based in the Gloucestershire town. “It is a combination of both people and its about equipment.”

They added that the government could not just provide headline cash injections, but instead needed to sustain an increase in spending over a long period of time.

“You can't just you can't just switch on and off the expansion. You can't just grow your capability overnight. It takes a lot longer to do that.”

Another former cabinet minister felt a lack of Government stability in recent years had hampered the best use of MoD resources. 

“Spending on equipment has a long-lead team, and what defence spending requires is stability more than anything else,” they said. "We need to reimagine the way in which we think about defence and security.”

They believed the UK’s commitment to a higher percentage of GDP on defence spending would not necessarily fix the MoD’s problems because the amount of money it would receive would still be dependent on the size of the economy year-on-year.

The government may hope that any Aukus partnerships with other allied nations would show MPs that the UK still has a serious role to play in global security. The pact, which was launched in 2021, was set up to check China’s power in the pacific.

One current minister told PoliticsHome they believed such proposals showed Britain was serious about resisting the growing threat of China in the South China Sea. But they claimed much of the rhetoric from the MoD, including its commitments on defence, were examples of "spin". 

“I think everyone [wants more spending]. It’s only those who have to toe the line that say otherwise and even they aren’t enthusiastic," they said. 

“China is the most formidable threat but Russia is more proximate, geographically and temporally of course."

Tory MP James Heappey, the former armed forces minister, has insisted that the UK must invest more money in the armed forces, writing in the Sunday Telegraph that Britain had failed to prepare itself for war. 

Recent polling suggests the public and Conservative voters share many of the concerns set out by Tory MPs. 

YouGov has found that there has been an eight-point spike in three months from those who see defence and security as the most important issue facing the country. In addition more Tory voters would prefer more investment in defence than further tax cuts, according to Savanta research commissioned by the Telegraph.

However, the public's interest in defence and security could be short-lived and eventually disappear when it comes to the general election, according to Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer and psephologist, who believed the economy would ultimately take precedent for most people.

“Other issues are further and further down,” he told PoliticsHome.

Tory MPs remain committed to securing guarantees for increased defence spending in their party's next election manifesto. But PoliticsHome recently reported that despite this, there is an acceptance in Government that they simply may not be able to afford to make such a commitment in time for the vote. 

A Government spokesperson said the UK armed forces were “among the very best in the world and we are spending a record amount on defence”.

“This includes an extra £24 billion between 2020-2025, the largest sustained increase since the end of the Cold War,” they said.

“The military is protecting the UK and our allies, including on every single NATO mission, supporting Ukraine against Putin’s aggression and tackling Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.”

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