A senior backbench Conservative has attacked his own party’s defence policy record since 2010. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday Tory MP Dr Julian Lewis credited the previous Labour government with being more “strategic” on the future of the armed forces while the Tories had left aspects of Britain’s capabilities “if not completely broken…certainly enfeebled.”
The MP for New Forest East, a defence policy specialist and former member of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, is standing for election in a second attempt to win the Chairmanship of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on which he sits. He laid some of the blame for degrading the armed forces on David Cameron’s pledge to safeguard spending on the NHS and international aid while allowing defence to be cut, saying that “the Government has boxed itself in…by making what sounds like worthy commitments to ring-fence preferred departments.”
In the interview Dr Lewis added his voice to those already calling for the Government to commit to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, the so-called “NATO mimimum.” He went on to argue that his Conservative colleagues should in fact be spending far more as 2 per cent is only the “starting point” for Britain to defend itself, saying:
“The important point about the NATO minimum is that it is just that – that it is a minimum and many people would be far from content, in a situation of increased threats from different directions and of different natures, to be spending only the NATO minimum…
“…What one ought to do is say, well, we’re spending the minimum as a starting point, then we will make our strategic assessment of the world in which we live and the potential threats we face, and then we will decide how much more than the minimum we can invest.”
He went on to say that at a time of “severe cuts” to defence, international threats are in fact growing “and the decision-making process for formulating a strategy and ensuring we react in a logical way to crises as they develop…if not completely broken, is certainly enfeebled.”
In contrast Chancellor George Osborne has spoken of plans to cut £1 billion from the Ministry of Defence’s annual £36.5 billion budget, a policy which has alarmed defence experts who are now pressuring the Chancellor to change tack in his July Budget.
One such expert, Royal Navy Admiral Lord West, a former first sea lord and Labour security minister, told the House of Lords that Britain risked becoming a foreign policy “irrelevance” saying:
“We must not delude ourselves. We are at a turning point. Unless more money is found for defence, defence is in a crisis. We are balanced on a knife-edge. Without an increase in defence spending, we are on a road to disaster. The Navy and the other military forces will not be able to do what the nation expects of them.”
Dr Lewis critcised the approach his own party has taken to developing a defence policy, contrasting it with the record of the previous Labour government. Praising the first administration of Tony Blair he said:
“I very much take the view that the Labour Party got it right in 1998 when they spent about a year and a half…doing a very deep and comprehensive review of our strategic needs. The 1997-98 Labour Strategic Defence Review was strategic but unfunded, whereas the 2010 Conservative Strategic Defence and Security Review was funded but it was unstrategic.
“What you need is a combination of the two. The problem was that they didn’t, of course, put the resources necessary to meet all those problems – but it would be a mistake then to do the opposite, which is what the Conservatives have tended to do since 2010, which is to say, right, what are we going to spend and how much of the threat can we ameliorate for that sum of money?”
Dr Lewis, a vociferously active supporter of the West during the Cold War, saved some of his criticism for NATO hawks, warning against extending membership eastwards in case it dragged Britain into another world war:
“We should not be egging on countries that are not members of NATO to be defiant of their Russian neighbours, any more than it would have been right during the Cold War years for us to encourage uprisings in Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Germany when we would not be able to go to their assistance.
“People are very blasé about extending NATO membership, and I’m totally opposed to the suggestion of extending NATO membership to countries such as Ukraine or Georgia, because you’ve got to ask yourself one question: would you be prepared to start a third world war in defence of that country? Because if you extended the guarantee, and then dishonoured it, the whole basis for NATO’s deterrent would disappear.”