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17 March 2021

There’s something everyone has missed about the Integrated Review

It is far from clear whether the government is willing to take on the cost of turning its announcements on nuclear warheads and trade with China into reality.

By Stephen Bush

What to make of the Integrated Review into the United Kingdom’s foreign and defence policy? The headline the government wants, of course, is about the increase in the size of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal: having planned to reduce our stockpile of Trident nuclear warheads to 180, we will instead increase the maximum permitted size of our nuclear arsenal to 260. (At present, we have around 200 warheads.)

But questions to Boris Johnson, from across the House, were dominated by two aspects: the government’s plan to cut the international development budget from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent, and the review’s proposal that the United Kingdom seek closer trade ties with China. 

The three issues have more in common than you might think. There is, of course, a world of difference between saying that you can increase the size of your nuclear arsenal from 200 warheads to 260 and that you will increase the size of your nuclear arsenal from 200 warheads to 260 – not least that the former is free, while the latter is expensive.

Added to that, the government’s fiscal framework gives it a huge amount of latitude to spend money on infrastructure – ie, nuclear warheads and submarines – and not very much wriggle room as far as day-to-day spending is concerned: in other words, on people to crew submarines, fly fighter jets and so on. Or, for that matter, for day-to-day spending on international development. 

That very tight fiscal framework, and the decision to go for a form of Brexit that erects barriers to trade between the UK and the EU, increases our incentives to increase rather than decrease trade with China, and to continue to overlook events in Xinjiang. 

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The core of the Integrated Review – its identification of new threats and its recognition that the climate crisis is the most urgent challenge facing the British state and all states – is welcome and has been near-universally praised.

But the ability to implement the approach set out in the review rests on the government’s willingness to pay for it. And while you can fiddle the figures on things like nuclear warheads, aircraft carriers and drones, you can’t do the same as far as armed forces personnel are concerned, or if your real China strategy is to prioritise the free flow of trade over the treatment of the Uighurs.

What connects the government’s internal rows over China and development with the fight it wants to have with Labour over new nuclear warheads is that, when the time comes for action, it’s not clear if the government is willing to pay to turn the Integrated Review’s proposals into reality.