Labour will not boost military spend without economic growth, says minister | Defence policy

The Labour government will not increase spending on the military unless it is also able to grow the economy, the armed forces minister has said, as Keir Starmer comes under pressure to say when Britain’s defence spending will hit 2.5% of GDP.

Luke Pollard said on Wednesday the government wanted to hit the target promised by the former prime minister Rishi Sunak, but would not be able to do so without economic growth.

His comments come as the prime minister begins a two-day visit to Washington DC for the 75th-anniversary Nato summit, at which he will urge other member countries to increase their defence spending.

Pollard told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The way we deliver increased public spending on defence, on schools, hospitals or prisons, is by growing our economy. If we don’t grow our economy, there won’t be the money to support those public services and the ambitions that we have – and that includes defence.”

Starmer landed in Washington on Monday night before the summit, at which world leaders are expected to pledge their commitment to Nato and to Ukraine’s eventual membership.

The prime minister will hold talks with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, on the sidelines of the summit, as well as holding his first bilateral meeting with the US president, Joe Biden, at the White House.

Starmer will use the trip to emphasise his “cast-iron” commitment to spending 2.5% of UK economic output on defence, though he will not set out a timetable for doing so. The prime minister will launch a defence review next week, but that is not expected to report for another year.

His stance contrasts with that of the Conservatives, who went into the election promising to hit the 2.5% target by 2030, but were criticised for saying they would pay for that commitment with ill-defined cuts to welfare spending.

Pollard said on Wednesday: “The defence review next week is so important because we need to set out what the sequence of any increased defence spending will look like, to make sure that we get there.

“We can’t change the size and shape of our armed forces overnight, nor can we create the growth that we’ve been so missing over the last 14 years.”

The government is coming under pressure on several fronts, however, to be more specific about when it will increase defence spending. The UK currently spends about £64bn on its armed forces each year, equivalent to 2.32% of GDP, and would need to increase that amount to £87.1bn a year to reach the 2.5% target.

Alan West, the former head of the navy and a Labour peer, said on Tuesday: “I think we ought to say when we are going to get to 2.5%. ‘When the situation allows’ is not really good enough – Putin will not wait for our situation to be good enough before he attacks.”

Philip Ingram, a former colonel, said the government was “playing with fire” by holding a year-long defence review. He added: “[The] threat is now and it will take years to fix the army, our ammunition stocks, get the RAF and navy ready.”

James Cartlidge, the shadow defence secretary, told Times Radio on Wednesday: “We need to go to 2.5%, and we need to go urgently. I think Keir Starmer’s decision to dither and delay on this is going to be damaging and force some very difficult decisions on the people who run the MoD.”

He defended his own government’s failure to hit the 2.5% target during 14 years in power, saying: “We had to take difficult, painful decisions to balance the books.”

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