Tories in turmoil as Hammond says Cameron hasn't promised to protect defence

Defence Secretary forced to clarify that the PM's pledge to protect spending only applies to defence equipment, not the total budget.

Back in 2010, when David Cameron rather optimistically believed that George Osborne's deficit reduction plan would succeed, he promised Conservative MPs that defence spending would rise in the next parliament. "My own strong view is that this structure will require year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015," he said.

With the ever-more hawkish Cameron now talking of a "generational struggle" against African jihadism, Tory MPs and armed forces chiefs have understandably demanded that this pledge be kept. The front page of today's Telegraph suggests that they have succeeded. "No more defence cuts, says Cameron" reads the headline, with the paper reporting that "the Treasury will increase defence spending above inflation from 2015, even as it cuts other Whitehall departments’ budgets." 

But interviews this morning with the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, suggest that the pledge isn't as bold as it appears. Hammond told Sky News that contrary to the Telegraph's splash, the promise only applies to defence equipment, not total spending.

"I think what the Prime Minister was referring to was the pledge that was made – which Treasury ministers have repeated – that the equipment plan, the part of the defence budget which funds equipment, will rise by 1 per cent a year in real-terms after 2015. And the Treasury has re-confirmed that commitment since the announcements in the Autumn Statement," he said. In other words, Cameron hasn't ring-fenced defence at all and the cuts (which amount to 7.5 per cent by 2015) will continue.

"I don't expect to be exempt," Hammond said. And with spending on the NHS, international development and schools already protected, it would be surprising if he did. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already described the likely 16 per cent reduction in spending on non-ring-fenced departments as "inconceivable". Protecting defence would mean even greater cuts to areas like the police, higher education, welfare and local government. 

Quite how Cameron led the press to believe that he had pledged to increase defence spending is unclear. But by reminding his MPs (many of whom are furious that defence has been cut while overseas aid has been increased) that he won't be able to keep his 2010 promise, he has done himself no favours. 

David Cameron meets British soldiers based at Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.