'A global Britain has no choice but to step up': Defence minister attacks Chancellor in row over spending delay

Danielle Sheridan
·3-min read
Chancellor's spending plans have drawn criticism from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace -  Heathcliff O'Malley
Chancellor's spending plans have drawn criticism from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace - Heathcliff O'Malley

A defence spending row has ensued after the minister warned "our adversaries will not halt in the absence of our strategies", as he attacked the Chancellor over a potential delay.

Ben Wallace told an audience on board HMS Queen Elizabeth at the Atlantic Future Forum that the world does not stop for domestic “reviews” of national defence.  He said: “In an area of constant competition, a global Britain has no choice but to step up.

“The world does not stop for our reviews, our adversaries will not halt (in) the absence of our strategies, and the UK’s defence can never be paused, in the face of financial uncertainty.” His comments on Wednesday came after the Government confirmed it would scrap a planned multi-year spending review and instead hold a one-year review at the end of November.

Rishi Sunak said the decision was taken to prioritise the response to Covid-19 and focus on supporting jobs, setting departmental resources and capital budgets for 2021-22, and the devolved administrations' block grants for the same period.

A Treasury statement said: "While the Government would have liked to outline plans for the rest of this Parliament, the right thing today is to focus entirely on the response to Covid-19 and supporting jobs - that's what the public would expect."

It is thought that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief aide who is heavily involved in the looming Integrated Review, wants the Prime Minister to resist pressure from the Treasury regarding reducing future spending in defence. 

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said the spending review  would "deliver on the Government's manifesto commitments" and "confirm multi-year capital spending for some key programmes which will help transform the country and spread opportunity across the UK”.

He added: “In relation to the Integrated Review, we are considering the implications of the one year spending review on the Integrated Review and we'll provide an update on that in due course.”

Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said after a private conversation with Mr Johnson on Wednesday he was confident “the review is going ahead”.

“It would be costly to the MoD in freezing programmes and the indecision that is caused there, but more importantly it’s being watched by our adversaries and our allies and it’s so important that we provide clarity.

“Until you provide clarity on the strategic direction and our international ambition you can’t craft the necessary defence posture for us to start facing threats.”

Mr Ellwood said that while Mr Johnson was “committed to say that there will be no delay” in the publication of the Integrated Review, he cautioned that the MoD needed a “free pass” from Mr Sunak’s spending review “otherwise there is no point”. 

Professor Michael Clarke, former director general of the Royal United Services Unit, warned that pushing ahead with the Integrated Review without a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) would be a futile “window shopping” exercise that “leaves a question mark over everything”. 

“You can’t be realistic unless you know what the longer term financial plans are,” he said. “Undoubtedly the process of reviewing must go on.

“The fact that we have to keep thinking about the future is certain. Our defence and security environment is changing quickly and we can’t just sit back and do nothing.”

However he cautioned that in lieu of the Chancellor’s review the MoD must “push the Treasury for a decision on how much they can spend informally”. 

“They can’t do anything properly unless they can link it with a three of four year spending plan which the CSR would have provided.”

Professor Clarke said he understood “authors within the MoD are keen to get something out” but added that “if it can only be a headline version then they can’t make any plans for the future unless they know what sort of budget envelope they are working with”.