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Sunak vs. Starmer: The battle of the defence budget

This week, Rishi Sunak announced plans to increase British defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030, with a timeline for staggered annual increases. This is likely a response to the significant pushback he received after no such commitment came in the most recent Budget, both from the Conservative benches and from experts elsewhere – including those who signed the Council on Geostrategy’s Defence Pledge. The plans also offer a direct challenge to Keir Starmer – will the Labour manifesto match or exceed these commitments, or will the opposition stick with the vague commitment to increase defence spending ‘as soon as resources allow’?

While the United Kingdom (UK) has consistently met its NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP, there has rightly been considerable pressure to go further. Britain has bolstered its defence over the last few years, with defence spending rising every year since the beginning of the current Parliament to around 2.3% of GDP. However, there remains a paramount imperative to do more – to support allies and partners, build the UK’s military capabilities, and deter those state and non-state actors who are looking to challenge the security and stability of the international order.

While it may seem prudent only to increase defence spending ‘as soon as resources allow’ – a line used by the Labour leader and a similar one used by Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, during his Spring Budget speech – it is so vague as to be counterproductive. I may plan to buy myself a sports car when resources allow, but that does not mean that I will ever in fact be zooming down the motorway in my very own Aston Martin. Such mealy-mouthed commitments do nothing to give the country confidence, nor to signal to adversaries that Britain takes defence seriously.

The reality is that conflict does not wait for economic conditions to allow its occurrence. With the ever-growing spectre of unprecedented challenges, including Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, the UK cannot be complacent. The long lead times for military platforms and munitions mean that His Majesty’s Government needs to think ahead – what money is spent on now will be what Britain has to protect the nation in the decade to come. The cost associated with increasing the defence budget now would be wholly eclipsed by the costs of inaction.

Sunak’s plan moves him firmly away from the vague promises of yester-budget and commits to allocating 2.5% of GDP to defence by 2030, entailing an additional £75 billion in spending over the next six years. This investment will be channelled into vital areas: revitalising the UK’s industrial base, enhancing its technological prowess through research and development, and extending its steadfast support to Ukraine. Responding to other alarm bells that have been rung over a lack of strategic planning and a byzantine procurement process, the plans also commit to a comprehensive National Defence and Resilience Plan, aligning defence and civilian efforts to tackle security threats, and reforms to the defence procurement pipeline to maximise the impact of extra spending on military capabilities.

The overarching aim is suitably bold – to reaffirm Britain’s position as the preeminent military power in Europe, second only to the United States within NATO. There is also hope that the plans serve to set a good example, pour encourager les autres – if all NATO member states were to hit a 2.5% of GDP benchmark, defence spending within the alliance would surge by over £140 billion. Given that the Prime Minister made the announcement while standing next to Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, in Poland – another nation at the forefront of military capability building in Europe – the point could not have been more overtly signalled.

All good stuff, albeit a little later than one may have wished for – but ultimately the proof will be in the electoral pudding. Given the likelihood of an incoming Labour government after this year’s general election, it is rather probable that nobody from the Conservative side will actually have to implement these plans. Eyes will thus be on Starmer – will he remain vague, or join the Conservatives in moving away from talk of conditions? One member of his shadow Cabinet, Steve Reed, stated in a press interview that Labour would match the plans, but at the time of writing no official confirmation of that has come from Starmer himself.

Although it may sting for Starmer to have to agree with a Conservative proposal, particularly as doing so now would make it seem that he was cornered into it, he should nonetheless pledge to at least match these plans. The defence of the nation is the primary duty of a government, of whatever political stripe, and properly funding our military should be the policy of all serious political parties. As he may soon be given the keys to Number 10 and the responsibility of guiding Britain through the next chapter of international instability, Starmer should make clear his commitment to spending what it takes to keep the UK safe – and do so sooner rather than later.

Dr Emma Salisbury is the Robert Whitehead Associate Fellow in Military Innovation at the Council on Geostrategy. She holds a PhD from Birkbeck College, University of London, and is a senior staffer for a Member of Parliament as well as an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks.

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