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Tobias Ellwood: “We’re moving towards a more populist, nationalistic, isolated post-virus world”

Tobias Ellwood: “We’re moving towards a more populist, nationalistic, isolated post-virus world”
10 min read

When the UK emerges from the coronavirus outbreak, Tobias Ellwood believes it will be greeted by a “worsening world”. With geopolitical threats refusing to go away, and “wily adversaries” likely to take advantage of the global crisis, the Defence Committee chair is concerned about the future. He talks to Sebastian Whale.

Not for generations has the work of medical staff been so valued by the nation. “When this is all over, there will be a huge outpouring of gratitude,” predicts Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Defence Select Committee. “You see some of the pictures of people who have worked with their protective gear on, bruised in their faces because their masks have been so tight as they’ve done all their work. It is a very, very tough environment. I hope that is absolutely the case.”

If there are positives to come from the coronavirus crisis, a marked appreciation of those who take care of us would be a welcome one. It is not only NHS staff facing months of hard graft; the police have been tasked with enforcing new measures on curtailing social interactions; the military have been deployed to help with logistics, such as distributing personal protective equipment to areas in most need; and civil servants are helping to enact the Government’s response. Along with social care workers, and those running our transport systems, these are some of the unsung heroes.

A wily adversary will be taking full advantage of the fact that states, leaders, armed forces, are distracted to tackle the pathogen

Among the many permutations of the pandemic is the debate over how we fund these public services. Though a global health crisis of this scale is unprecedented for the modern age, budgets may need to factor in contingencies. Ellwood, a former defence minister, says the 2015 strategic defence and security review had a section on pandemics, in the wake of the ebola crisis a year earlier. He argues budgets will need to have more headroom.

“You don’t have resources to say ‘what if’ for absolutely everything. [But] you have to have the flexibility to then adjust and to make sure that you adapt very, very quickly indeed,” he explains.

Absorbed by the Brexit debate for three years, Britain – along with the rest of the world – is now gripped by the coronavirus crisis. This, Ellwood contends, could have significant geopolitical consequences.

“I don’t think it will be a whole new world; I think it will be a worsening world. It’s a really good point to make that while we’re all distracted and focused only on one thing – indeed the whole world is doing what it can in sharing data and trying to defeat the coronavirus – the old threats haven’t disappeared. A wily adversary will be taking full advantage of the fact that states, leaders, armed forces, are distracted to tackle the pathogen,” he warns.

“Terrorism hasn’t disappeared; Iran’s proxy clandestine influence in the Middle East is not going away; China continues on its march military to expand its footprint in the South China sea, economically as well in countries becoming financially dependent on it, and of course, technologically as well, as people buy into its very, very cheap services for which it is difficult to get out of.

“They are likely to emerge from this pandemic faster than other countries, and, therefore, will be out of the blocks back to their usual games. We need to be concerned about that.”

Compounding this fear is Ellwood’s prediction that the coronavirus outbreak has caused a “breakdown in globalness, in the desire to want to do international business and share ideas”. The Tory MP, who was born in New York and went to schools in Germany and Austria, adds: “So, we’re moving towards a more populist, nationalistic, isolated post-virus world.”

The Government recently commissioned an integrated security, defence, development and foreign policy review, in which spending levels will be considered. With the UK and other nations splurging hundreds of billions of pounds to protect the UK economy and its people, a period of austerity could greet the end of the crisis.

In such an outcome, is Ellwood fearful that areas like defence could suffer as a result?

“I am indeed [fearful]. I think the integrated review will be moved to next year, which will be good. But ultimately, the burden on our Armed Forces is enormous and we shouldn’t underestimate that. At a time when our service fleet could be utilised to help expats abroad – that means taking them away from their normal operational duties – these threats just haven’t disappeared. They continue.”

Ellwood welcomes the Integrated Review itself, but calls for greater certainty on the UK’s wider approach to foreign policy. “You need some direction and clarity of what you want to achieve before you start saying ‘this is how many tanks I need’ or ‘this is the size of the service fleet’,” he says.

The UK currently spends 2% of its GDP on defence. If Boris Johnson started to look again at that figure, what would Ellwood’s message be to the prime minister? “We are not managing currently under 2%. You have a choice; the first question is, you have to decide what role you want to play in the world, and if we want to take a more overt role – we’ve been distracted by Brexit for three years – then we need to consider investing more in our Armed Forces,” he replies.

“Our ability and desire to establish new trading relationships with countries around the world will be dependent on security. If we don’t have security and security of supply, then the trade doesn’t happen and the money doesn’t go into the coffers and there’s less money for all government departments, let alone the MoD. So it’s in the Treasury’s interest to invest in defence.”

The aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak could present an opportunity for a rethink of international institutions, such as the UN and Nato, which Ellwood argues “are all out of date”. “The UN has been completely neutralised because of the veto. Nato and the EU also have problems because of the absence of a complete overlap with Greece in both organisations but Turkey not. And yet Turkey is part of Europe – and Europe, therefore, has a border with Iraq and with Syria,” he says. “That is a problem which the EU seems to buffer itself away from because there’s Turkey sitting in the way. But refugees come through Turkey and that then becomes a European and ultimately British problem as well.”

The evening before we speak, Boris Johnson enforces more stringent rules to limit social interactions across the country. Ellwood was among those to have called for the Government to go faster and further in enforcing social distancing rules. “We are about two weeks behind Italy. We have to learn from what has happened and is happening in Italy, and realise that the measures that have been introduced to date have not been enough to stem the growth in the numbers of cases and deaths,” he says. “This is very difficult; it’s a testing time for the nation, there’s no doubt about it. But it will be for a shorter period of time if we can turn the tide here. That is what I hope will happen over the next two or three weeks.”

Ellwood says the military has a role in enforcing the new measures. “What they tend to do is do a relief in place. So it is likely that you will see armed officers and uniformed personnel from the Armed Forces replace police officers who guard No 10 and Whitehall and so forth, static building locations, liberating those police officers to then do more law and order type roles of enforcement of the movement restrictions.” He adds: “The Armed Forces, the MoD, plans for disruption. So they will already be looking to see what forces may be required to mobilise as departments are challenged.”

Public service runs through Ellwood’s veins. A graduate of Sandhurst, he joined the Royal Green Jackets in 1991. During his military career, he served in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia. Five years later, he joined the Reserves after reaching the rank of captain.

The world needs leadership. It is crying out for the western partners to invigorate what it is that we stand for

Ellwood, the MP for Bournemouth East since 2005, came into our national conscience three years ago. At around 2.40pm on 22 March 2017, Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians along the south side of Westminster Bridge, killing four and injuring dozens more. After crashing his car into the perimeter fence of the parliamentary estate, he exited his vehicle and ran into New Palace Yard, where he was confronted by PC Keith Palmer.

After hearing gunshots, Ellwood ran to help PC Palmer, who was dying after being stabbed by Masood. His efforts to resuscitate Palmer, though in vain, rightfully won admiration.

Ellwood, who moved from the FCO to the MoD in June 2017, departed government after Boris Johnson became prime minister. A proponent of a soft Brexit and an opponent of no deal, his personal pronouncements meant a ministerial career was not likely to continue under the new Tory leader. In January of this year, he was elected chair of the Defence Committee.

The Government has so far maintained that the Brexit transition period – due to end in December 2020 – will not be extended. But with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, recovering from coronavirus, and government apparatus focused solely on the crisis, few expect this position to be maintained. 

“I understand the prime minister has made it public that he wants the talks to continue. I think the reality is that they are very likely to be delayed,” Ellwood says. “We now appreciate the scale of what happened yesterday, the announcement, means that this is not going to go away in the next couple of months. And, therefore, you eat into the summertime. There will be a recuperation period required, an adjustment, to the new world and then we’ll have to take it from there. So there is much to be done.”

Ellwood is still in Westminster at the time we speak over the phone. Among his committee’s inquiries include a review into the security of 5G after the Government announced Huawei would have a limited role in the UK’s 5G networks. Though the committee is still receiving written submissions for its inquiries, it has recently not been able to take oral evidence because of the coronavirus outbreak. With plans being formulated to hold sessions via video conference, Ellwood hopes it will “advance our abilities to take evidence from a wider pool” in the future. “It’s been a wake-up call for the way committees do business,” he adds.

Amid an absence of global leadership, Ellwood believes the UK is in a “unique position” to step up to the fray. With significant soft powers and global influence, Britain now needs to “utilise” its capabilities, he argues. “The world needs leadership. It is crying out for the western partners to invigorate what it is that we stand for,” he declares.

“As we’ve been distracted by three years of Brexit, I was very much hoping that with this Government, which has a rare opportunity of a huge mandate, the time, the space, and the energy to move Britain’s politics into a new era, that we would then embrace that challenge of speaking with more authority on the international stage. Clearly, the coronavirus has put a different dimension on the global situation, but that shouldn’t prohibit us from wanting to pursue a more active, influential international role.” 

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