Defence news this week has focused on a public and increasingly bitter dispute between Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.
In response to Mr Williamson’s indications he will seek up to £2bn for the MoD from the Treasury, the Chancellor and sources close to him have called the Defence Secretary’s knowledge of defence into question. Mr Williamson and allies have hit back, questioning Mr Hammond’s performance when at the MoD; while the Chancellor has also been told he may not use Royal Air Force aircraft for official business until an outstanding bill for previous usage has been settled by the Treasury.
Elsewhere, an independent review into the terror attacks on the UK earlier this year has been published, finding some concerns at the work of the security service and missed opportunities to apprehend suspects. France has also offered access to its naval vessels to address concerns over UK amphibious landing capability.
- Defence Secretary and Chancellor in war of words
- Chancellor claims the Army only needs 50,000 troops
- Defence Secretary calls for British ISIS fighters to be eliminated
- MI5 Chief reveals agency has foiled nine terror plots since March
- Review findings suggest terror attacks could have been prevented
- French offer amphibious support
Defence Secretary and Chancellor in war of words
The Times has reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has been banned by the MoD from using RAF planes until an outstanding six-figure bill by the Treasury is settled. The announcement marks the escalation in an increasingly public spat between Mr Hammond and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. The Chancellor has previously used aircraft attached to No32 (The Royal) Squadron for official business.
The decision by the MoD followed media coverage of comments attributed to allies of Mr Hammond that likened Mr Williamson to Private Pike from Dad’s Army; while allies of Mr Williamson have hit back, suggesting Mr Hammond was weak during his time as Defence Secretary from 2011 to 2014. The row between the two senior Cabinet members has been largely prompted over the issue of defence spending, with Mr Williamson indicating in recent interviews that he would be seeking additional funds for the MoD from the Chancellor. However, as The Times has also reported this week, Mr Hammond has publicly questioned the Defence Secretary’s understanding of defence and defence spending.
Appearing in front of the Treasury Select Committee this week, Mr Hammond insisted “there is no greater champion of defence than me,” also claiming the defence budget is being increased. The Chancellor also commented that he would be happy to discuss defence spending with Mr Williamson “once he has had a chance to understand the situation in the Ministry of Defence, and to get his head around the defence budget.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson has indicated Downing Street is keen not to be involved in the spat between the two ministers.
Philip Hammond’s position has been under considerable scrutiny in recent months, and the rhetoric between the two Cabinet ministers is likely a product of Gavin Williamson seeking to establish himself at the MoD (his appointment having been criticised) and Mr Hammond trying to bolster his position at Treasury. As noted previously, it is likely the Defence Secretary will hold any demands for funding until the completion of the SDSR review.
Chancellor claims the Army only needs 50,000 troops
The Sun reports that Chancellor Philip Hammond has told the Prime Minister that the Army only needs 50,000 troops. The Army has a current strength of 78,000 troops, 4,000 below its target, with the deficit attributed to recruitment problems. Reducing the Army to 50,000 personnel would make it the smallest it has been in 220 years. The Sun has suggested Mr Hammond made the claim recently to Prime Minister, Mrs May, and former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon.
The news has come as the current Defence Secretary has indicated he will seek an additional £2bn in funding from the Chancellor. Commenting on the Chancellor’s remarks, Defence Select Committee member Johnny Mercer MP, a former army officer, said, “We couldn’t even fulfil our NATO commitments with an Army to 50,000, let alone mount a sustained defence of our nation or its dependent territories.” Mr Mercer also noted that such a reduction in the size of the Army would be a breach of the Conservative’s manifesto pledge.
Despite the comments of the Chancellor, the Government is highly unlikely to proceed with any such scale down in the size of the Army, which would attract intolerable pressure in Parliament and from allies including the United States.
Defence Secretary calls for British ISIS fighters to be eliminated
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson gave an interview to the Daily Mail this week in which he said that, “Quite simply, my view is a dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain” and believed that UK citizens returning from fighting in Iraq and Syria should be “eliminated.” It is estimated that more than 800 UK citizens have fought for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Of those, approximately 130 have been killed, 400 have returned and 270 remain in the Middle East. MoD statistics show that the number of drone strikes carried out by the UK Government in Iraq and Syria has significantly increased in three years and have often killed British citizens.
Mr Williamson said, “Our forces are right across the globe degrading and destroying that threat, making sure that these people who want to bring destruction, death, bloodshed onto our streets aren’t able to come back”. He added that those fighters who had splintered and moved away from the fighting would also be prevented from returning to the UK and would have their passports confiscated if they tried to cross international borders.
How returning jihadists should be handled by the UK is the subject of ongoing debate. In October, Max Hill QC, who serves as the UK’s terror watchdog, said that some young people who “naively” went to fight and now wanted to return and reintegrate into society should be allowed to do so if they do not pose a threat. His comments attracted significant criticism, and Mr Williamson’s statements indicate a hardline approach to tackling terrorism as he establishes himself in his new role.
MI5 Chief reveals agency has foiled nine terror plots since March
The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, briefed the Cabinet about the terror threat currently facing the UK this week. He revealed that the security services have foiled nine terrorist plots since the Westminster attack this year, and 22 since the murder of Lee Rigby on the streets of London in May 2013. Five terror attacks have been carried out this year, including four in London and the Manchester bombing. Mr Parker released the information shortly after the publication of review findings that suggest the terror attacks could have been prevented, as detailed below.
One of the foiled terrorist plots is understood to have involved the planned assassination of the Prime Minister, Theresa May. It is believed that Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman, 20, of North London, and Mohammed Aqib Imran, 21, from Birmingham, had planned to blow up the gates to Downing Street and using the ensuing chaos to find and kill Mrs May in a knife attack. They have been arrested and face charges of preparing an act of terrorism.
Review findings suggest terror attacks could have been prevented
A review of the terror attacks perpetrated on the UK was published this week. The review was led by David Anderson QC. The findings suggest that “the Manchester attacks in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently,” as MI5 had scheduled a meeting to discuss the threat posed by the perpetrator, Salman Abedi, 22, for just nine days after the attack was carried out, the Daily Telegraph reports. The report does note, however, that MI5’s decision not to reopen a case into him in early 2017 was “understandable” and “finely balanced.”
The Times reports that the leader of the attack on London Bridge, Khuram Butt, 27, had been monitored by MI5 since 2015 and was involved in “high-risk extremist activity”. He was on bail for fraud when he carried out the attack with two others. Mr Butt had been the main subject of Operation Hawthorn, started in 2015, in which MI5 investigated whether he “aspired to conduct an attack in the UK.” The operation was suspended for a month in 2016 due to resource constraints, and again a day before the unrelated Westminster attack was carried out.
The Times also reports that one of the terrorists in the Westminster attack, Khalid Masood, 52, had researched the Islamic State and knife attacks on the internet in the year leading up to the attack. However, no “intelligence relating to him suggested attack-planning aspirations.”
In response to the findings, Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, has written in The Times saying that “the fact that the police settlement is due before year-end means there is an opportunity to begin to correct the damage of previous cuts” and said that the safety and security of citizens “requires appropriate funding.”
The Guardian has reported that Home Secretary Amber Rudd has confirmed the review and performance of the security services in relation to the attacks will not be assessed by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Mrs Rudd also expressed her support for the increased role of MI5 in tackling domestic extremism. Dominic Grieve, the ISC’s chairman, said, “rather than just trying to reinvent the wheel in respect of what Mr Anderson has done, we will endeavour to maximise the efficiency of both services.”
There had been some concerns over the independence of the review led by David Anderson QC, however the decision of the ISC to focus on the efficiency of the security services is likely to be broadly welcomed in mitigating against future attacks.
Labour will likely continue to press on issues of policing cuts, and, following the Federation’s parliamentary reception this week, we will be following up with the Shadow Policing Minister in addition to the shadow defence team.
French offer amphibious support
A number of national newspapers have reported this week that France has expressed willingness to offer the Royal Marines access to their warships as part of joint deployments, if the Marines are left stranded by a scaling back or loss of UK amphibious landing capacity.
The news marks the latest in a series of concerns over the potential sale of the UK’s only two amphibious landing vessels. The Government has faced significant criticism at home and abroad over the proposed plans. Twenty-five Conservative MPs, led by Defence Select Committee member Jonny Mercer MP, also wrote to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson last month, demanding the plans – along with mooted cuts to the Royal Marines – be dropped.