Minister backed in ‘bare-knuckle’ spending fight

One of the country’s most senior politicians has called on the Defence Secretary to enter into a “bare-knuckle fight” with the Treasury to secure more money for the defence budget.

Dr Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, has told Sky News that “the time has come for a showdown” and indicated he will support Gavin Williamson’s efforts.

Responding to the growing public rift between the Chancellor and the Defence Secretary, the experienced Conservative MP said that the country is “now at a stage of crisis in defence funding” and warned that money will not be won from the Treasury by asking nicely.

“Years after we took the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War we were still spending 3% of GDP on defence,” he said.

“We barely spend 2% now and that is utterly inadequate. Therefore if Gavin Williamson is prepared to have a bare-knuckle fight with the Treasury to get defence spending raised to the level it absolutely needs, and if he wins that fight, he will deserve our total support.”

On Wednesday The Times newspaper claimed the RAF would stop flying the Chancellor until he has paid for past ministerial flights. Phillip Hammond is said to have been furious by the front page headline.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will be based in Portsmouth during its 50-year lifespan

Image: The call comes on the same day HMS Queen Elizabeth is formally commissioned into the Royal Navy

“It was a cheap shot, childish and completely unhelpful,” an ally of the Chancellor told Sky News. “Why would Phillip want to help out Gavin after that?”

Some Tory MPs have started to express concerns that the deteriorating relationship between Mr Williamson and the Chancellor could have an effect on negotiations for more money.

A meeting between the two ministers scheduled for Monday was cancelled at short notice – a new date has not been scheduled.

Mr Lewis’s rallying call is made on the same day that the UK’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be formally commissioned into the Royal Navy.

Large crowds are expected on the south coast to see the Queen who will be present for the ceremony in Portsmouth – the first time she will have visited the 65,000 tonne ship since naming her in 2014.

The significant moment will mark the transfer of ownership from the consortium who built her to the Navy who will sail and operate her.

HMS Queen Elizabeth has just completed the second stage of her sea trials after sailing from a dockyard in Rosyth, Scotland last June.

She is the first of two new aircraft carriers, collectively costing more than £6bn. The second, HMS Prince of Wales, will start her sea trials in 2019.

Philip Hammond

Image: Philip Hammond is said to be furious over a story about him and an RAF flights bill

The trials have included systems testing, fire drills and inspections of hatches and doors. Flight trials will begin next year off the east coast of America using F35 stealth fighter jets and the ship will be ready for operational duties in 2021.

It has been a mixed week for the Defence Secretary – some senior Army officers were left bemused after the he posed for a photo shoot on Monday with two military dogs that were due to be put down.

“It’s all very well the Defence Secretary saving dogs but we would rather he put his efforts into saving our jobs,” one Army source commented.

It has also emerged that Mr Williamson has held a series of meetings with Conservative MPs to brief them on the ongoing national security review – he reportedly told them that the defence budget is “predicated on a lie” and conceded he “can’t see a way out of the crisis”.

The frank admission contradicts Mr Williamson’s public optimism – he previously told The Sun newspaper he was “quite good at delivering” having “never lost a single vote” as chief whip, and last week he told the House of Commons that he’s “always seen the 2% (spending) as a base against a ceiling”.

More from Gavin Williamson

Conservative MPs are starting to up the ante as the National Security Review nears completion.

Mark Francois, a former defence minister, said: “I think colleagues are now following the progress of this review very closely and would take a very real interest as it plays out and it’s important to remember amidst all of this that the first duty of government is defence of the realm and I would expect the review to reflect that.”