Boris Johnson has today unveiled a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending – the largest increase in budget since the Cold War. The news came on a busy day for the political press; announced the day after the government’s flagship Climate Change 10-point-plan. With Labour infighting, No 10 infighting, the beginning of Allegra Stratton’s media shake-up, Brexit negotiations on pause due to a Covid case, devolution rumblings and, of course, the US Election, it has been a rather congested schedule. Global Britain announcements, however, will wait for nothing.
Today’s announcement is set against the backdrop of next week’s “wide-ranging spending review” – potentially with fewer cuts than expected, despite the dramatic impact the pandemic has had on the economy. Of course, other departments may see their funding reduced, with particular question marks over the development fund, but the Ministry of Defence will not be a part of it. Good news for the defence budget could mean bad news for others, with an already stretched public purse. Rishi Sunak is delivering his spending review next Wednesday, with forecasters describing a “scary” outlook for the UK public finances that is being briefed as the worst hit since the second world war.
Today’s defence news also precedes the once hotly anticipated “integrated review” of the UK’s foreign policy; one of Dominic Cumming’s legacies announced back in February 2020. This is still set to be published (likely to be in the new year) and now has a budget in which to work within. Global Britain, the grand plan of the government for a post-Brexit future, is now begging to take shape – no longer just rhetoric, but with bigger budgets, and trade deals being finalised. Today’s announcement, according to the Prime Minister, will directly “extend British influence” – something he will hope will allay the fears of some in his party of the hefty government spending. It will secure “jobs, prosperity, security and the Union”, he said.
Of course, there is a paradox due to the ongoing rumours of the international development budget being reduced – something that not so long ago was considered a cornerstone of the UK’s international influence. The maintaining of the 0.7% of GDP aid budget was a key legacy of former PM David Cameron and its expected reduction marks a break from the “compassionate conservativism” his government promoted. And of course, today’s halt in Brexit deal negotiations comes at a pivotal time with less than two months to go till B-Day, with a short break due to one of the EU team being taken unwell with the virus.
The increased defence spending, over a four-year period, has been regarded as quite the win for Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary. Currently, the defence budget is £41.5 billion, and will now receive an extra £4 billion a year for the next four years (on top of existing above-inflation budget increases as promised in the 2019 manifesto), with Britain the highest spending European country. Wallace, who some regard as on the periphery of Johnson’s Cabinet, said today that this is “the first HMT in decades to really see the defence funding challenge”. There is, however, a widely publicised £13 billion funding gap at the Ministry of Defence, which some observers have suggested will not be resolved by today’s injection.
The money is set to upgrade much of the equipment used by the military, encourage R&D, as well as create an estimated 10,000 jobs each year, across the UK. There will be a new “RAF Space Command” that will be capable to launch its first rocket as early as 2022. There is also to be a new National Cyber Force and a new AI agency that will develop autonomous weapon systems including drones and a new “sixth-generation fighter jet”. Also expect vast swathes of investment into the Royal Navy, with the Prime Minister pledging to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe”.