UK spending review delay leaves defence and security in limbo

By on 28/10/2020 | Updated on 28/10/2020
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s postponment of the CSR has led to howls of protest from defence and security experts and opposition politicians alike Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street/Flickr

The UK government’s decision last week to postpone its planned multi-year comprehensive spending review (CSR) has raised concerns about the implications for the Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. 

On 21 October, the government announced it would abandon the CSR and conduct a one-year spending review instead. The move, it said, was designed to “prioritise the response to COVID-19 and our focus on supporting jobs”. 

“In the current environment it’s essential that we provide certainty. So, we’ll be doing that for departments and all of the nations of the United Kingdom by setting budgets for next year, with a total focus on tackling Covid and delivering our ‘Plan for Jobs’,” said chancellor Rishi Sunak. Only key infrastructure projects and “multi-year NHS and schools’ resource settlements” will be fully funded over a longer period.

Defence in limbo

However, the government made no mention of the IR in its announcement, which Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of think tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said had left “the future of the IR uncertain and senior defence leaders very frustrated”.  

He added: “There is now little prospect of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) getting the medium-term financial settlement which it needs to drive through the transformation in the UK’s defences, which it has championed for the last several years. Instead, it faces another year of planning blight, with all the associated delays and wasted resources that this entails.” 

Chalmers added that he has little confidence that the CSR and IR would be resumed next year. “After the 2008 financial crisis, two years elapsed before the austerity-driven 2010 Spending Review and accompanying Strategic Defence and Security Review were completed,” he said. 

“It could take just as long before the Treasury is able to fully assess the damage done to the country’s finances by the coronavirus crisis. The Ministry of Defence, along with most other spending departments (apart from health and schools) could be in for a long wait.” 

Furthermore, said Chalmers, the delay exacerbated the lack of clarity over the UK’s role in the world following its exit from the European Union at the end of this year. 

“Although the British people decided to leave the EU more than four years ago, ministers have still not made a clear policy statement on how they see the UK’s role in the world once Brexit is completed,” he said.  

“Without an assured financial underpinning, such a document would inevitably be high-level in some respects, especially in relation to resource prioritisation. But it could still provide clear guidance and direction on foreign, security and defence policy issues that are not primarily about money. These could include, but would not be limited to, the UK’s relations with its key allies in the US and Europe.” 

Speaking out

Former national security adviser Peter Ricketts tweeted: “So, where does this leave the Integrated Review of defence, foreign policy and security, due out in November? If multi-year spending settlements for departments are postponed by a year, then either the IR is delayed as well or the policy choices are announced without the funding.” 

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy was also dismayed by the announcement. In a letter to government, she said that the government’s inability to say when the IR would be published was creating an impression of “chaos”.  

“It appears that key departments to be affected by the delay of the CSR, including the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office], were blindsided by the announcement of the one-year horizon of the CSR,” she noted, adding that there were contradictory statements from ministers and MPs on when the IR would be forthcoming. 

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