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14 March 2023

Rishi Sunak’s “epoch-defining” defence strategy needs to be more than a label

The Prime Minister needs to accompany rhetoric with policy, and is still under pressure on defence spending.

By Freddie Hayward

The last time the UK took a proper look at its defence and foreign policy – in the so-called Integrated Review – was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now the government has announced a “refresh”. There’s greater weight placed on science and technology. The “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific is deemed complete (see the details of the Aukus submarine deal between the US, UK and Australia announced today). Russia is still the biggest threat, but there’s a more explicit recognition that the “Euro-Atlantic” area is the priority for UK security.

Much of the conversation ahead of the refresh focused on whether China would be a labelled a “threat” or remain a “systemic challenge”. Indeed, this was one of the key reasons why Liz Truss wanted to reopen the review in the first place. Rishi Sunak has gone with “epoch-defining challenge”. (And remember that the government’s approach to China will be “robust pragmatism”.) This was always going to be a mere label unless accompanied by policy. One of the largest problems for the government has been a lack of institutional knowledge about China. The review commits to doubling funding for the China Capabilities Programme, which teaches civil servants Mandarin. The general tone of the review suggests co-operation with China where possible and the protection of national security where necessary – a reversion to Sunak’s position as chancellor.

The government is under pressure on defence spending, from Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, for instance. An extra £5bn was announced yesterday, but £3bn of that will go on nuclear capabilities with the remainder marked to replenish weapons that have been sent to Ukraine. The government also “announced” that it would spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence but did not set out a timeline. The policy isn’t new – it’s a diluted version of Boris Johnson’s commitment at a Nato summit last June (lacking his deadline of 2030) – but it does put an end to Truss’s dreams of a target of 3 per cent.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, expressed some misgivings but, as ever with foreign policy, there was a broad consensus in the House of Commons yesterday.

Less so an hour later during the debate on the Illegal Migration Bill. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, lampooned the government for how unworkable its plans to detain almost all asylum seekers who cross the Channel would be. In fact, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, was criticised from all sides. Simon Hoare, the Conservative MP, assured Cooper there were Tories who would only support the bill in the hope it would be amended. Theresa May said “anybody who thinks that this bill will deal with the issue of illegal migration once and for all is wrong”. Caroline Nokes compared it to “Donald Trump’s caging of children”. Nonetheless, no Tory MP voted against the bill, and the rebellion, Katy Balls reports in the Spectator, might eventually come from the right of the party with an amendment to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Rebellion or no rebellion, the biggest problem for the government remains whether the plan will actually work.

[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]

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