Defence Secretary hints he may fight Chancellor over cuts

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has hinted that he will fight cuts to the defence budget during his debut appearance at the House of Commons despatch box.

Taking questions from MPs, he repeatedly suggested he would resist the pressure to make savings but admitted he had not yet had a formal meeting with Philip Hammond.

“I have regular meetings with the Chancellor,” he said. “As yet I’m to have a formal meeting with the Chancellor, but I’m very much looking forward to doing so to discuss our shared future.”

A national security review is ongoing, ordered by the Prime Minister after increasing threats from Russia and Islamist-inspired terrorism.

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However, the review is widely feared to be an excuse for further defence cuts unless the MOD can secure more funding from the Treasury.

The new Defence Secretary has previously made clear he wants time to understand the issues and options before making his case to the Chancellor.

“I’ve always seen 2% as a base as against a ceiling,” Mr Williamson said, when the chair of the Defence Select Committee, Dr Julian Lewis, pointed out the UK spent 5% of GDP on defence during the Cold War.

There has been speculation that up to 1,000 Royal Marines could be cut, along with the UK’s two amphibious ships – HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.

Mr Williamson promised he was “re-examining the work of the national security teview” and will make up his own mind what decisions should be taken.

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But asked repeatedly on the fate of Albion and Bulwark, neither he nor any of his junior ministers were prepared to guarantee their future.

“There has been an awful lot of speculation in the press. I want to look at the evidence, I want to look at the detail, we’re not going to be rushed into any decisions,” he told the House.

Several MPs stood up to warn him that the Government would face a Tory backbench rebellion if cuts were forced through.

Mark Francois, a former Conservative defence minister, said there would be a furore from both sides if some of the reported cuts went ahead, but the former chief whip tried to set them at ease by saying he “certainly listens with intent and interest to the views of all colleagues”.

In perhaps his most natural and passionate answer at the despatch box, Mr Williamson said: “I think there has been a tendency since the early 1990s to think that the world is a much safer place than it actually is.

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“And there has been a tendency to sit back and believe that everything is just going to be safer and safer.

“The world is rapidly changing and it’s not just threats from terrorism, it’s threats from peer enemies as well. We need to understand what those threats are and make sure we are equipped to deal with them.”

It was a generally solid, albeit nervous maiden performance, followed closely because of the growing row over defence cuts.

In a final, pointed gesture he thanked the Chancellor for his “kindness and generosity” in allocating Libor fines to charitable causes in defence, before adding: “I hope such generosity will continue into the future.”

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