STEPHEN GLOVER: Two cheers for Rishi’s defence boost… but show me the politician who truly grasps the perils we face

Hold the front page! A British prime minister pledges to increase UK defence spending to 2.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product by the end of the decade.

There is joy and relief throughout the chancelleries of Europe and in Washington D.C., while the ­Secretary-General of Nato is cock-a-hoop.

You probably think I’m ­referring to Rishi Sunak’s announcement in Poland on Tuesday, which has been greeted with near-universal approval among those worried about our inadequate defences. But no.

It was Boris Johnson in June 2022 — a few weeks before his defenestration — who made this specific ­commitment at a Nato summit in Madrid. Almost two years later, Mr Sunak has repeated his predecessor but one’s undertaking.

Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday that the planned increase in military spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP puts Britain’s defence industry ‘on a war footing’

Please don’t think me curmud­geonly. I welcome the Prime ­Minister’s reiteration of Mr ­Johnson’s pledge. It is worth two cheers. Good for Rishi. Let’s not pretend, though, that it is new. Nor should we delude ourselves into believing that it’s ­anything like enough.

For a convincing argument can be made that the world is a more ­perilous place than it was in June 2022. Russia has seized the ­advantage in its war in Ukraine, and has moreover ­enormously increased its military spending, perhaps by as much as 100 per cent.

Meanwhile, Iran is almost ­certainly a more dangerous power than it was in the ­summer of 2022, and China has grown even less friendly towards the West.

Rishi may have woken up to the threats encircling us, and we should be glad about that. The fact remains that, for all the hoopla surrounding his speech, the Government has merely re-embraced a commitment made nearly two years ago by Boris, since when the storm clouds have continued to darken.

Under existing plans the Army will number just 73,000 next year, the smallest for two centuries, and about half the size it was as recently as 1990

Under existing plans the Army will number just 73,000 next year, the smallest for two centuries, and about half the size it was as recently as 1990

Mr Sunak said on Tuesday that the planned increase in military spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP puts Britain’s defence industry ‘on a war footing’. This is a gross ­exaggeration. It is Russia that’s on a war footing.

The extra money announced by the Prime Minister, which will amount to some £75 billion between now and 2030, will merely fill in some gaps. Our Army, Navy and Air Force are shadows of what they were 40 years ago. In 1984, defence spending was 5.5 per cent of GDP — significantly more than twice what Mr Sunak wants it to be in 2030.

The PM could have said that higher defence spending would allow us to reverse the ­shrinking of the Army, which under existing plans will number just 73,000 next year, the smallest for two centuries, and about half the size it was as recently as 1990. He gave no such assurances.

Nor is there any reason to believe that the extra money will pay for more frigates in our almost comically depleted Navy, or for the proper number of airplanes on our two new aircraft carriers, both of which are often in no fit state to set out to sea.

Maybe we can justifiably hope that the RAF will no longer be required next year to reduce its already much-diminished stock of 137 Typhoon combat aircraft by 30 because it can’t afford to keep them in the air.

The truth is that we already spend about 2.3 per cent of GDP on defence. An increase to 2.5 per cent in six years — during which time Russia and China will doubtless be raising their defence ­budgets by far larger proportions — will be useful but hardly transformative.

James Heappey, who stood down as Armed Forces minister in March, welcomed the extra money yesterday but was grimly realistic: ‘Anybody who thinks that 2.5 per cent is going to bring with it a growth in the Navy or a growth in the Air Force or a growth in the Army doesn’t really ­understand just how expensive all this stuff is.’

A good chunk of the cash is unlikely to be spent on new resources since there is ­reckoned to be a ‘black hole’ of some £17 billion in the Ministry of Defence’s budget, which will have to be filled.

Another £10 billion or so will go on replenishing munitions that have been, or will be, sent to Ukraine.

We should of course be pleased by the higher ­expenditure, but it is fanciful to suppose that 2.5 per cent of GDP, once finally achieved in six years’ time, is going to make a decisive difference. I find it hard to believe that Rishi Sunak thinks it will.

A commitment to 3 per cent of GDP should have been the bare minimum, and only as a starting point. It’s what Defence Secretary Grant Shapps ­publicly called for as recently as last month. It also happens to be the figure that the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, suggested when he was standing for the Tory leadership in July 2022.

I confess my suspicions that Rishi is a man more at home peering at spreadsheets on his computer than absorbing the brutal histories of past wars — possibly wearing velvet ­slippers with a restorative cup of carrot juice by his side — haven’t disappeared.

And yet he has this political advantage: Labour is even less suited to addressing the perils of the hour. For all its cavilling about the Tories neglecting defence, the party has so far refused to match Mr Sunak’s pledge.

On Tuesday, Sir Keir Starmer didn’t take the opportunity to do so in a BBC interview. Nor would Deputy Leader Angela Rayner when standing in for Sir Keir during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. Shadow ­Attorney-General Emily Thornberry told Sky News that Labour will seek to hit the 2.5 per cent target ‘when circumstances allow’.

Maybe Labour will find the courage to commit itself to 2.5 per cent. I’ve no doubt Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey will try to persuade Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves to do so. If he’s unsuccessful, and Labour continues to shirk from equalling the Tories’ undertaking, it will present Mr Sunak with a political opportunity.

A recent Mail poll produced the incredible finding that significantly more people trust Labour than the Tories on national security and defence. Seven in ten respondents said that the parties’ stance on defence could sway the way they vote in the ­election. In other words, ­voters realise that we live in a much more unstable world, and defence has become an ­election issue.

So Rishi Sunak has been politically astute in raising the amount we spend on defence, albeit by a modest proportion, and Labour could damage itself unless it is able to show the electorate that it really does care about the issue.

Show me the leading national politician who really grasps the seriousness of the perils we face! What is at stake is infinitely more important than party ­political games.

Two cheers, or a cheer and a half, for Rishi Sunak. This is a beginning but it’s nowhere near enough. It has taken him 18 months in No 10 to realise what Boris Johnson grasped nearly two years ago, when the world wasn’t quite so dangerous.

Whichever party wins the election, it is going to have to spend much, much more to make this country safe.