LONDON — Britain’s Conservative Party launched its manifesto Nov. 24 ahead of an upcoming general election next month, but the document threw little new light on its future plans for the defense industry and the armed forces should the party stay in power.
Tucked away on page 51 of the manifesto, defense likely wouldn’t have figured a mention at all during the rollout of the document had it not been for the fact that hours before the launch, the Sunday Times reported that service chiefs are fighting over cuts to the British Army’s end strength and other money-saving tactics.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, both conservatives, quickly dismissed the suggestion that Army numbers would be cut from their nominal figure of 82,000.
Nevertheless, the manifesto made no pledges about maintaining numbers, as the then-Conservative Party leader Theresa May did in the last election in 2017.
The actual strength of the Army now stands around 73,000, and the newspaper report said the figure could be reduced to between 60,000 and 65,000. It also said cuts to Royal Air Force personnel numbers as well as mothballing or leasing one of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers are under consideration as service chiefs scrap among themselves over potential cuts to meet budget restrictions.
Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, a defense consultant at Ashbourne Strategic Consulting in London, believes the article could be the start of a fight between service chiefs seeking to gain advantage ahead of an upcoming defense review.
“I suspect it’s the opening salvo in an interservice squabble ahead of any strategic defense and security review next year. It won’t be the last one,” she said.
The Conservative Party’s manifesto did commit to extending its current policy of giving a 0.5 percent rise above inflation to the defense budget for the length of the next Parliament and continuing to meet NATO’s target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense; but the document said little new beyond that.
Jon Louth, the director for defense, industry and society at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, said that not all the military’s upcoming requirements and commitments could be squeezed into the defense budget, possibly prompting military officials to fight among themselves.
The defense analyst said the lack of attention given to defense by the Conservative Party and its main rivals, the Labour Party, in its manifesto is “bizarre.”
“It was a lost opportunity to address some of the long-term issues. I’m underwhelmed by the attention they paid to defense at a time when NATO’s eastern flank is being threatened by Russia and China’s position is under increasing scrutiny, particularly as the situation in Hong Kong plays out,” Louth said, referring to ongoing protests in the former British territory. “There are substantial defense and security concerns out there, and voters should at least have been given a sense of where the main parties stand on these import issues."
There’s a fair degree of skepticism in England anyway over the value of pre-election manifesto commitments. And Labour’s manifesto is about as light on substance as the Conservative’s when it comes to defense. Hard-left Labour has committed to a defense and security review. And that group said it supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent as well as retaining NATO membership — despite party leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigning against both for years.
Labour’s union backers are fearful of the thousands of jobs that could be lost at the Scottish base at Faslane, headquarters to the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet.
Among Labour’s other pledges are a continuation of Britain’s NATO funding standing at 2 percent of GDP as well as a change in shipbuilding strategy to ensure all combat and logistics support ships are built in Britain.
Earlier this month the Ministry of Defence halted an international competition to build up to three large logistics ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. No precise reason for the move was given, but the MoD had been under increasing pressure to ensure the ships were built locally and not contracted out to a foreign yard.
The Conservatives are ahead in the polls, but a hung Parliament remains a possibility, which could open the door to a Labour-led coalition. That could involve the Scottish National Party, which will likely win a substantial number of parliamentary seats north of the border.
The SNP’s principle policies include getting rid of Trident as well as a new independence referendum for Scotland. Success in either policy would be a significant blow to the British defense sector.
Ashbourne-Walmsley said that could pose a big issue for Labour.
“Labour has tried to come across as ‘defense friendly,’ but I’m not the only one considering the manifesto pledges with a degree of skepticism," she said, "not least because the SNP have already indicated their ‘red lines’ on Trident for any coalition government would be at odds with Labour’s stated claim to retain the capability.”