Keir Starmer arrives at NATO summit, as Tories demand to know when government will boost defence spending

10 July 2024, 11:36

Sir Keir is facing calls for clarity over when his government will boost defence spending
Sir Keir is facing calls for clarity over when his government will boost defence spending. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

Keir Starmer has arrived in Washington for a NATO summit, as he faces calls from the Conservatives to give clarity on when his government will boost defence spending.

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Sir Keir and his ministers have refused to say when exactly they will fulfil their promise to boost the military budget to 2.5% of GDP - repeating only their "ironclad" commitment to reaching that level when their "fiscal rules" allow.

The government has said that it will conduct a review before making decisions on defence spending. That should be done within a year.

But ministers have been criticised for this stance by former military leaders and the Conservatives, who both warn that the threat from Russia and others is too close to delay spending increases.

James Cartlidge, the shadow Defence Secretary, said making a "clear commitment" on the timeframe for increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP was "vital for our national security".

Read more: Keir Starmer urges NATO to ‘unite’ to 'Trump-proof Ukraine aid' ahead of US election

Read more: MoD hasn’t always spent money wisely, minister says, as he pushes back defence budget decision at NATO summit

Follow the NATO summit on LBC
Follow the NATO summit on LBC. Picture: LBC

He wrote to his government counterpart John Healey, he said: "Our armed forces need the certainty and clarity on their funding in order to plan and prepare for the future.

"It is necessary to prepare everything from accommodation and benefits for service personnel to ensuring that they are equipped with the latest capabilities, equipment and technology."

The Conservatives claimed ahead of the election that Labour could not be trusted with the armed forces, a charge that Sir Keir Starmer's party disputed.

Meanwhile former senior military personnel accused Labour of "playing with fire" by delaying the decision.

Starmer says review needed to set timeline to reach 2.5% defence spending

Philip Ingram, a former colonel in British military intelligence, told the Times that the "threat is now and it will take years to fix the army, our ammunition stocks, get the RAF and navy ready."

Admiral Lord West, a former head of the Navy and previously a Labour security minister, said the government needed to "spend some money urgently".

He warned that "there are severe doubts on whether the armed forces are capable of doing what is expected of them".

Luke Pollard, the new armed forces minister, agreed that the armed forces have undergone "hollowing out and underfunding" in the 14 previous years of Conservative government.

But he said that the defence review was vital, to make sure that the money was spent in the right areas.

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari speaks to armed forces minister | 10/07

Mr Pollard told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "We need to conduct that defence review, not just looking at the headline spend, how much we're spending on defence, but importantly, what we're spending on and how we're spending it - because the Ministry of Defence in the past hasn't always spent money as well as they should be."

Asked why other departments had been able to set out clearer spending plans sooner, Mr Pollard said that the opposition does not get such a close look at the books of the Ministry of Defence, for security reasons.

"It's been certainly easier in opposition for departments that can look at 100% of the information required to make a decision. That's what we've done in health and education, other areas.

"But in opposition, you don't get to see the classified security briefings, the intelligence, the work with our allies that would be required to work out precisely what shape our armed forces should be."

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: Getty

He said that British military spending would be aligned with NATO, because the UK would be fighting together with allies if a major war broke out.

It comes after Prime Minister Keir Starmer urged fellow NATO members at the 75th anniversary summit to unite and protect funding for Ukraine in its war with the Russia, ahead of a possible victory for Donald Trump in the US election.

Mr Trump, a NATO-sceptic, is the favourite to win the election against incumbent Joe Biden in November. Mr Biden has maintained a firm pro-Ukraine stance.

Sir Keir told reporters as he flew to the US that it was vital to show the largest group of nations together to go above and beyond for support for the war-torn nation.

More aid from nations across the world is expected to be promised at this week’s summit - where President Zelenskyy is in attendance.

Heads of state pose for a group photo during the NATO 75th anniversary summit
Heads of state pose for a group photo during the NATO 75th anniversary summit. Picture: Getty

The UK has vowed a fresh package of aid within 100 days as they increase ammunition, missiles and other aid.

Sir Keir said: "Given there is going to be an election in America later this year, I think it's very important at this summit, and I think there is a real opportunity for real unity.

“It's the largest group of NATO countries together with the additions that we've got, and the package that we are seeking to advance, it goes beyond the support that's been put in before and will be locked in, I hope, at this NATO conference.

"That's the financial package, that's the military aid, and the strand that is the industrial strategy as well which is really important given what Russia is doing in this in terms of its industrial back-up strategy."

The British army got smaller under the Conservatives, with around 75,000 regular personnel as of January this year.

Mr Pollard suggested that it would not continue to shrink under Labour, although he would not commit to it increasing in size either.

War is still raging in Ukraine nearly two and a half years since the Russian invasion
War is still raging in Ukraine nearly two and a half years since the Russian invasion. Picture: Alamy

"We want to make sure that the forces are in the right place, and in the right structures and formats," he said.

"In opposition, I certainly wasn't keen on the reduction in our armed forces," he told Nick.

"We've seen not only the smallest army since Napoleon, we've seen one in five Royal Navy warships cut over the last 14 years 200 RAF planes [cut].

"What we now need to do is make sure that we're matching our capabilities as UK armed forces against the threats that we are facing.

"We have developed new capability gaps in recent years, because of good reasons. For instance, we have correctly supported our friends in Ukraine [by] donating UK military equipment, so they can fight this illegal Russian aggression, [but] that has created gaps in our own armed forces."

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