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Tanks on the lawn: Labour's plans for the Ministry of Defence

Keir Starmer and John Healey meet British soldiers at Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, August 2022 (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

8 min read

What are Labour’s plans for the Ministry of Defence? Sienna Rodgers reviews the problems that may await John Healey as defence secretary

Labour’s reaction in 2018 to the attack in which former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, Wiltshire, appalled many of the party’s own MPs. Yvette Cooper and Wes Streeting, now shadow cabinet members, were among those who expressed disgust at Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to immediately hold Vladimir Putin responsible.

When Keir Starmer’s time as leader came, he vowed that never again would Labour go into an election not trusted on national security. Overhauling Labour’s reputation on defence meant finding an experienced MP with authority to take up the post of shadow defence secretary. John Healey – known in the Labour Party as a thoroughly reliable front bencher who starts his days early, works hard and rarely 'commits news' – fits the bill. 

“What if Labour went bold and said: ‘We’re going to commit to three per cent of GDP on defence spend’?”

Tasked with opening up Labour again to the armed forces, Healey has since done considerable internal party work, such as reviving the membership organisation Labour Friends of the Forces. He has also sought to reassure the public, emphasising an “unshakeable” commitment to Nato at every opportunity, vocally supporting the nuclear deterrent, and continually criticising the government for not allocating more money to the defence budget.

Polling shows the drive has been a success: when it comes to trustworthiness on defence, Starmer is now level with Rishi Sunak according to YouGov. But while there has been a big turnaround on reputation among electors, there is much more work to do in sorting out the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – widely described as a (very complex) mess – if Labour enters government after the next election.

Labour likes to highlight that army and navy recruitment targets have been missed every year since 2010, and the army is being reduced to 73,000 soldiers by next year – far fewer than the 100,000 in service when Labour left government. But there is a spending-sized hole in the party’s current answer to those problems.

Although Labour has criticised the government’s target expenditure of two and a half per cent of GDP on defence, on the basis there is no clear plan for meeting it and no timeline, the opposition party has yet to make its own commitment beyond implying it will follow the Nato guideline of two per cent. Instead of naming a figure, the party says it would conduct a strategic defence and security review in the first year of government so it can assess the threats and what resources are needed.

John Spellar, a Labour member of the Defence Select Committee and former defence minister, believes a number is essential. “We are in the middle of a crisis, therefore imprecision is not going to fit the need for handling it, because this clearly is going to go on for a long time. I don’t just mean Ukraine, I mean more generally the action – or standoff, as it may become – between Putin and the West,” he says.

Defending his imprecision on spending, Healey recently told an audience at the Policy Exchange think tank that Labour did not have the information required to make such a decision. “If you’re in government you get to know everything; if you’re in opposition you get told nothing,” the shadow defence secretary said. 

Pressed on this further by The House, Healey added that it was “impossible” to give a number “with real confidence in opposition”, and the expectation he should make such a decision now – “when we may have another nine months and two fiscal events before an election” – was “a little unfair”.

Similarly, Spellar points out that Labour cannot yet know “how many nasties [the Conservatives] are leaving behind”, from the wronged postmasters to the infected blood and Windrush victims. “They are leaving a whole load of timebombs for Labour where billion-pound settlements will have to be dealt with. As a result, it’s almost impossible for our Treasury team to give a clear view until they actually know not just what the cashflow is at the moment but how many liabilities are piling up.”

Some are nonetheless pushing for Labour to show more ambition on defence. “There’s an opportunity to really lean into terrain that is not conventional Labour terrain,” enthuses one senior party insider. “What if Labour went bold and said: ‘We’re going to commit to three per cent of GDP on defence spend’? It would be tied to our industrial strategy; an economic growth and jobs argument as well as a geopolitical one. 

“Obviously, we can’t do that because there’s no money. But there is real scope for being surprising in how we think about what defence is and what it means in this particular age.”

In a speech delivered at the end of February, Healey offered no big surprise to catch out the Conservatives, instead majoring on rather dry internal MoD reforms. “I’m more interested in getting results than photo ops,” he explained.

Healey promised to establish a military strategic headquarters within the MoD – a “must-make, week-one change” to restore military readiness – and install a “fully-fledged” national armaments director to provide clearer leadership on procurement. He said these reforms would get the MoD working better by creating a stronger defence centre and increasing “effective strategic oversight”. Labour would also appoint top military leaders for four years rather than two, for the purpose of stability.

With Healey’s hands tied on the finances, improving efficiency is the lever he is left with. In December, the National Audit Office revealed a “black hole” of £16.9bn in the armed forces equipment budget – a good chunk of which is thought to be attributable not to budget size, but waste and delay. 

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been highly critical of the government’s 10-year equipment plans, concluding in its assessment of the latest one that the MoD “relies on over-optimistic assumptions” about costs and savings, and the United Kingdom could even “struggle to maintain its essential contribution to Nato”. 

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the PAC, tells The House that “years of dither and delay” have resulted in the huge budget gap in defence. “Putting off difficult decisions just shunts the cost forward and increases it, let alone the risk of meeting now-pressing deadlines. And this will all be on the list of issues the next government will face.”

In one seemingly anodyne area, the MoD’s inventory system, the PAC reported that poor management had even presented a significant risk to life. Fragmentation and outdated processes meant personnel were supplied, via an outsourcing deal, with medical items that did not have the shelf life necessary for longer deployments. Making sure the right kit is in the right place at the right time is one of the many elements overseen by the defence brief that is seemingly straightforward but in reality quite complicated.

More often cited as a prime example of an MoD programme beset by problems and delays is the army’s Ajax armoured vehicles programme. Beginning in 2010 with the expectation it would enter service in 2017, today we are told it will not be operationally deployed until 2026. Even then, it will not meet its full potential as the Morpheus communications system that should come with the vehicles has also been delayed.

Another trouble identified by Hillier as one of the “big nasties” awaiting the next government is the dismantling of decommissioned nuclear submarines. “The first will finally be completed by 2026 but there is now an urgency because of much-needed dockyard space for maintenance of the existing fleet,” Hillier says. In the meantime, storage and maintenance costs £30m a year. 

One of the key drivers of overspend in the MoD, according to experts, is that in-year spending is managed through delay. Unless Labour in government can secure a settlement that allows flexibility between years, the danger is that problems will keep being rolled into the following year, and the hole in the defence budget becomes ever larger.

Asked by The House how he would address this challenge, Healey acknowledged that a strong relationship with Rachel Reeves would be crucial. “I want the MoD to have more influence across Whitehall and beyond. That requires resetting the relations between defence and the rest of Whitehall, particularly the Treasury and the Foreign Office,” he said. “I’m very well aware of the counterproductive consequences and additional costs that a tight annual accounting requirement imposes.”

Defence industry insiders are happy with the make-up of Labour’s defence team, from the reliable John Healey to shadow armed forces minister Luke Pollard. The latter’s father was a submariner in the Royal Navy and his constituency in Plymouth covers HMNB Devonport, so he has been close to defence issues throughout his personal life and political career.

There are concerns, however, that while Labour has talked freely about its high-level ambitions in defence, the industry has not seen enough detail. They had expected that more would be shared informally with stakeholders ahead of the election. There is a risk, they say, that Labour spends its first year in office on another strategic defence review, before discovering it does not have the luxury of time. 

Detailed work is quietly being undertaken by Labour on defence, particularly on the extremely complex area of procurement, for which experts have been drafted in. However, despite having taken great leaps forward in improving its public reputation on matters of national security, in other areas of defence Labour is keeping its powder dry. 

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