Boris Johnson faces a potential rift with senior ministers and generals at the start of a vital Nato summit in Madrid, after Downing Street indicated it would ditch a key manifesto commitment on defence spending.
In a chaotic sequence of events, a senior government source said there needed to be “a reality check” on the pledge to increase the defence budget each year by 0.5% above inflation, only for Johnson to try to argue it would be achieved.
Speaking to reporters as he travelled from the G7 talks in southern Germany to Madrid, where the agenda will again be dominated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the prime minister also pointedly dodged questions on whether he supported the idea of increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2028.
A leak overnight had suggested that Ben Wallace wrote to Johnson asking for this commitment, although the defence secretary said on Tuesday he had not put a figure on his demands in private. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said she agreed with the idea. Both ministers are at the Nato summit with Johnson.
On Monday, it emerged that No 10 had been warning it would most likely ditch the 0.5%-plus-inflation target, with the inflation rate above 9% and expected to rise.
A senior government source said there was a need for “a reality check on things that were offered in a different age”, also citing the money spent on Covid measures.
Asked about the comments, Johnson insisted the pledge would be met – but in terms that appeared to differ some way from the manifesto pledge, which simply said that as well as spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, the government would “increase the budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this parliament”.
Johnson said this target would be met if inflation is measured over the long term, not annually.
“We have been running way ahead of that target for a while now,” he said. “We’re confident we will beat that this year. You don’t look at inflation as a single data point, you look at it over the life of the parliament, and we’re confident that we’ll make that.”
Asked whether he supported the idea of a 2.5% target, Johnson avoided the question, referring only to “record” existing levels of defence spending.
The wider row over the defence budget risks causing a rift with Wallace. While he has not spoken publicly about a 2.5% target, in a speech in London on Tuesday he hit out at cost cutting, saying the British military had for too long had to survive on “a diet of smoke and mirrors, hollowed-out formations and fantasy savings”.
In a speech to a military conference organised by the Rusi thinktank, Wallace made it clear he felt the military required extra money.
“If governments have historically responded every time the NHS has a winter crisis, so must they when the threat to the very security that underpins our way of life increases,” he said. “Sometimes it is not about what dividend you can take out, but about what investment in people and equipment you can put in.”
Defence sources said there was no immediate concern about budgets during the period of the current spending review, up to April 2025, given that the budget would remain at above 2% of GDP, but pressure remains for increases in spending in the years thereafter.
Appearing before the foreign affairs select committee on Tuesday, Truss was more explicit still when asked if she backed the 2.5% idea.
“I agree with [Wallace’s] concerns,” she said. “The free world did not spend enough on defence post the cold war and we are now paying the consequences. I support the aims of increasing defence spending through Nato.”
While senior military staff are necessarily more measured in their words, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, the new head of the army, hinted in a speech on Tuesday that Britain would have to spend more on defence in response to Russian aggression.
The chief of general staff said the British army had to mobilise “to prevent war”, arguing that the military faced a “1937 moment” in which it had become necessary to modernise and adapt “to meet today’s threat”.
The shadow defence secretary, John Healey, said Johnson was “breaking his defence pledges to the British public”. He added: “With threats increasing and rising Russian threats, ministers must reboot defence plans and halt army cuts now.”
Johnson also said there would be conversations in the Spanish capital about the idea of increasing the Nato-wide target from 2% of GDP to 2.5% even though a majority of members have not met the current target.
“It was the UK that brought in the idea there should be a 2% floor,” the prime minister said. “We will have to have a conversation at Nato about where we go next. That’s something we will be talking about with friends and colleagues.”