Keir Starmer has welcomed the increased spending on defence unveiled by Boris Johnson this morning but criticised the announced funding as a “spending announcement without a strategy”.
The Prime Minister announced a four-year £16.5bn surge in government defence spending today, which is said to represent the largest real-terms increase in the defence budget since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
Responding to Johnson’s House of Commons statement this afternoon, the Labour leader challenged the Prime Minister over how the government planned to deliver the additional funding for the Ministry of Defence.
Johnson had told MPs: “British governments have trimmed and cheesepared our defence budget and if we go on like this we risk waking up to discover that our armed forces, the pride of Britain, have fallen below the minimum threshold of viability.”
Starmer said in response: “We welcome this additional funding for our defence and security forces and we agree that it is vital to end what the Prime Minister calls – I have to say with a complete lack of self-awareness – an ‘era of retreat’.
“But this is a spending announcement without a strategy. The government has yet again pushed back vital parts of the spending review and there’s no clarity over the government’s strategic priorities.
“And then there is the question of money. How will this announcement be paid for? Such is the government’s handling of this pandemic that the UK has the sharpest economic downturn of any G7 country.”
The Labour leader asked the Prime Minister whether the increased funding would be delivered through additional borrowing, tax increases or whether the money will be taken from other departmental budgets.
Starmer highlighted the Tory 2019 manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% gross national income on development. He warned against breaking this promise, arguing it would “not only undermine trust but also hugely weaken us on the global stage”.
The Labour leader described a “decade of underinvestment in our armed forces” and said defence spending had fallen by over £8bn in real terms over the past ten years and that UK regular forces have decreased by over 25%.
He highlighted reports from the National Audit Office that estimated a “black hole of up to £13bn in the MoD equipment plan” and said the “additional funding today is on foundations that have been seriously weakened over the last ten years”.
Emphasising a point he described as “very important to our armed forces personnel”, Starmer asked the Prime Minister to confirm whether there would be any further cuts to the size of the armed forces over the period of this review.
The announcement today formed part of the integrated spending review on foreign, defence, development and security policy. Downing Street said on Wednesday that the full outcome of the integrated review would be released next year.
Referring to Johnson’s climate plan unveiled on Wednesday, Starmer added: “There was very little but warm words on how the UK will lead the global efforts against the biggest threat we face – the climate emergency.
“Yesterday’s announcement, another press release without a strategy, will do nothing to address this… The government still lacks a clear strategy or a coherent vision for Britain in the world.”
Labour criticised the government for offering “rebadged funding pots and reheated pledges” when the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan to tackle climate change was unveiled on Wednesday, and stressed the need for an “ambitious plan”.
The defence spending commitment announced this afternoon, reportedly signed off following weeks of arguments between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, represents the largest military investment since the end of the Cold War.
Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement today, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has urged the government to “rethink its priorities” and described the move as a “totally inappropriate response to the pandemic”.
CAAT’s Andrew Smith said: “Only a matter of days ago the government was telling us that there wasn’t enough money to feed hungry school students during the holidays, but now it has found an extra £16bn to add to what was already one of the biggest military budgets in the world.
“Covid has exposed the impact of cuts and austerity. It is essential that the economy is rebuilt, but that should be based on sustainable jobs and industries that can help to create a stronger, greener and safer economy.
“The money should be used to build the green jobs that we need, and to fund the goods and services that we all rely on. It should not be used to buy evermore complex and deadly weapon systems…
“The government should reconsider its priorities. Our security is not advanced by throwing money at the military. It is strengthened by building fairer societies that support the most vulnerable, and by investing in our public services.”
The announcement of the four-year spending settlement for defence, awarding the department an additional £4bn per year, comes after Chancellor Rishi Sunak had said that all government departments would be given only one-year funding deals.
The funding is an increase on top of the Tory 2019 election pledge to increase defence spending by 0.5% above the rate of inflation each year of this parliament. The department will receive overall an additional £24.1bn over the next four years.