Although its often said that there are no votes in defence, Thursday saw the culmination of several weeks of intense political and public pressure on the issue of defence spending. Triggered mainly by signs that the defence budget will be cut again after the election and so drop below Nato's target obligation of 2% of GDP, the debate ended with some 38
John Baron (Basildon and Billericay, Conservative): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and those MPs who supported the application. We live in times of heightened international tensions. We would do well to remember that the adage about defence being the first duty of Government has been forged by events, and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. The world remains a dangerous and unstable place, and a growing number of countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west are not only rearming at an alarming rate, but becoming more assertive. We need to spend more on defence not only to better protect our interests and support key alliances, but to deter potential aggressors and ensure that we try to avoid conflict in future.
The motion calls on the Government to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, in line with our NATO commitment. Defence spending as a share of GDP has been falling in recent years, and it is widely believed that Britain will shortly fall below the 2% figure. We all know that 2% is an arbitrary figure; spending should reflect desired capability. I believe that defence spending should be much more than 2%—I suggest 3% to 4%. But the 2% figure does have symbolic value. Having lectured other NATO members about its importance, we should lead by example.
In short, we need to rediscover the political will for strong defence, and that political will transcends the political divide here. Some demons may need to be vanquished first, most notably our recent misguided military interventions, which have probably distracted us from greater dangers, but banished those demons must be. That we have the political will to ring-fence the international aid budget at 0.7% of GDP suggests that such will can be found; it is simply a question of priorities.
We have in this country, I believe, a political disconnect that needs to be put right. None of the main parties seems to question that Britain has global interests and needs to remain a global power, both to protect them and to uphold our international obligations as a member of NATO and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet the political establishment, across the political divide, appears unwilling properly to resource these commitments.
Kevan Jones (Shadow Minister of State for Defence):The debate has, of course, been dominated by the issue of the 2%. We have seen a great deal of “blue on blue” this afternoon, and I feel sorry for my hon. Friend—as I call him—the Minister. [Interruption.] Yes, he has drawn the short straw. However, he is passionate about defence, and he is very committed to it.
The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife said that when it came to defence, the Treasury was always the problem. I am sorry, but that is not true in this instance. Last year’s autumn statement set out what the Government, including the Prime Minister, would need to spend between 2016 and 2020, not only to eliminate the deficit but to be in surplus by 2018-19. If, as we heard from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), there is flat cash over that period, we are talking about a £6.8 billion cut in the defence budget, not counting the other cuts to which the Chancellor referred in the autumn statement.As has been pointed out, health, education and overseas aid have been ring-fenced, so any further cuts made over that period would have to fall on Departments that have not been ring-fenced. That would bring us to a point at which defence spending would be not 2%, but 1.4% of GDP.
However, it is worse than that for defence. The Government’s policy is to ring-fence the equipment budget and increase it by 1%. Any cuts made will not be made to the entire budget; they will fall on 55% of it, which means operations. As we all know, the main cost driver in that area is people, notwithstanding the nonsense that the Prime Minister keeps reiterating—as he did during Prime Minister’s Question Time a few weeks ago in a reply to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth)—about the Army remaining at its current levels. Unless he has some magic formula to which we mere mortals are not party, I do not understand how he will ensure that that happens.
The Times this morning, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, says he rejects including, for example, the intelligence budget in the figure:
The Prime Minister now has a defensive strategy. It goes like this: “We try to massage the figures.” However, as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has said, that would be dishonest, and he is not alone in saying that. In
“This is the kind of book-keeping for which you would go to prison if you were running a company.”
So clearly there is a concern. There are people in No. 10 who think if they massage the budget in some way, people will not spot the difference, but it appears from today’s debate that there are many on the Prime Minister’s own Back Benches with a lot of experience of, and commitment to, this sector, and he will find it difficult to pull the wool over their eyes.