Non-'fiscally neutral' defence review is go, minister tells MPs

Tanks and jets or sexy cyber-warfare stuff?

Gavin Williamson MP, pictured during his term as Defence Secretary
Gavin Williamson MP, the defence secretary, addresses MPs in the Commons

A long-rumoured review of British defence spending will not be "fiscally neutral", Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson told Parliament this morning as he announced that it is going ahead.

The review has been split out of an ongoing national security review headed up by the Prime Minister's National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill. Unlike Williamson, career civil servant Sedwill is not an elected MP and does not answer to Parliament.

"We're driving this review, this programme of modernisation, everyone including the Prime Minister thinks it's right to do this," Williamson told MPs in the House of Commons, adding that the review "isn't aiming to be fiscally neutral – that's why we brought it out of the national security capability review."

Williamson did not elaborate on whether the review not being "fiscally neutral" means an increase in the defence budget, as hoped for by many MPs, or further cuts, as has been the trend of British defence spending since the end of the Cold War. Though the government insists that it is spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, it does not break this figure down. Rumours persist that pension liabilities and other such figures are rolled into the public "defence spending" figure to bulk it out.

"Every government that makes statements about spending more inevitably ends up spending less," said prominent Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith. "Can we please not repeat the nonsense of saying 'when we modernise' you actually mean 'cut'?"

"I want [the Ministry of Defence] to drive efficiencies so that money can be put into the front line for our armed forces," Williamson replied.

Former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who resigned from the post last year after allegedly propositioning fellow Tory MP Andrea Leadsom, stood up to tell Williamson that he would have "the support of the whole House [of Commons] if he manages to secure additional funding", exhorting the defence secretary to "put the defence budget on a more sustainable footing to allow our armed forces to tackle these challenges... what really matters in the end is money. More money."

Labour's shadow defence secretary, Nia Griffith, asked: "What is the timetable for this review and when will it be published? It is vital our personnel are not kept in the dark," to which Williamson replied that he aimed to "publish it in the summer, before the House rises for the summer recess."

One of the more penetrating questions asked of Williamson was posed by Conservative MP Andrew Murrons, who asked what the difference is between "cyber, intel, asymmetric warfare and drones" in defence terms and security terms. "How is he going to delineate Sir Mark Sedwill's review from the one that he leads?"

Williamson said the MoD would be working with the Cabinet Office, adding: "In terms of cyber attack, this is something that the MoD leads on. All the work on those realms is done in complete conjunction with all the parts of our national security infrastructure whether that's GCHQ, MI5, MI6, and that's something that's completely essential." ®

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