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Boris Johnson’s defence budget promises need a battle plan

Boris Johnson has won a tussle within his government with his pledge to raise military spending

Boris Johnson has won a tussle within his government with his pledge to raise military spending but now needs to explain where the money will come from – and go, says Bronwen Maddox

The prime minister was brandishing the spoils of victory when he declared that his government would spend an extra £16.5bn on defence and security over the next four years. Victory over his chancellor, that is. Rishi Sunak, who has the task of delivering not just next week’s spending review but a Budget in the spring, had been pushing for a one-year settlement. Instead, Boris Johnson declared an end to Britain’s “era of retreat” with plans for more investment in space, artificial intelligence and cyber security, and more on drone and aviation technology.

The money comes on top of a manifesto commitment to raise military spending by 0.5 per cent above inflation in each year of this parliament. It will go at least some way to fill a hole of up to £13bn in the 10-year plan for equipment. Downing Street said that this will create “up to 10,000 jobs”.

The integrated review should have been concluded before the defence spending announcement

The prime minister is right that Britain has invested too little in these areas and that it – and its people and businesses – are exposed to attacks that can come through computers and phones, not on a far-off battlefield. The tools for trying to hold terrorist attacks at bay – to cite one prominent public fear – depend on cyber skills.

But the prime minister has rushed out his declaration without saying what he will spend it on. His government has begun an integrated security and defence review but not yet concluded it let alone published the results. Surely this should have come first. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, was right to make this point in the House of Commons (although Johnson’s riposte – about Labour’s distaste for the very notion of military deployment under Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, and a lack of much to say in recent months – was a good one).

There is as a result a lack of clarity about what Britain intends for its conventional forces. The navy has won some of the new spending for new frigates but its strategic purpose remains unclear. The struggles of army recruitment and uncertainty over future reliance on reservists add more doubt about the overall vision. There is, therefore, lack of clarity about strategic alliances – how the prime minister intends his vision of “Global Britain” to fit in with its main allies.

The Ministry of Defence has an astounding ability to spend public money badly

The prime minister has committed big sums of money to the defence budget, but he must also do more to ensure this money is not misspent. This means addressing the failings in defence procurement, the jargon often used to describe the astounding ability of the ministry to spend public money badly. Those who are exposed to the details of waste and bad judgements often take the cause up in passionate horror. Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP, in her stint as head of the Public Accounts Committee, seized on this record as one of the best uses of the committee’s time and public pulpit. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s top adviser until his sudden exit last week, agreed. They are both right.

Security and defence should be one of the country’s best cards as it seeks to become Global Britain. In the prime minister’s rush to make the announcement, there is more than a hint of trying to take one of the pieces of cake from next week’s spending review for himself rather than his chancellor. By making the announcement, however, he has brought it on himself to supply the detail. That is needed to reassure the country – and its allies – that the money will indeed arrive and will not be wasted.

Johnson government
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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