With Theresa May’s departure expected later this year, the race is underway among her Tory colleagues to position themselves as her likely successor. The weekend papers were filled with ministers at pains to prove their credentials – with Liz Truss calling for one million homes to be built on the green belt and Matt Hancock and Amber Rudd sparking rumours of a double ticket after they penned an article calling for a ‘modern, compassionate Conservative party’. On Monday evening Jeremy Hunt appeared to show some ankle of his own with a speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.
Discussing Britain’s place in the world, the Foreign Secretary said the UK is held in ‘far higher respect abroad than we sometimes have for ourselves at home’. However, the part of the speech that will garner the most attention relates to Hunt’s comments on NATO and defence spending. The UK currently spends around two per cent of GDP on defence – higher than France and Germany but below the US on 3.6 per cent. Although defence is not Hunt’s brief per se, the Conservative politician used the address to suggest that the government should look at increasing the proportion of GDP devoted to defence in the next Strategic Defence and Security Review:
‘The foundation of Britain’s security is NATO. But it is simply not sustainable to expect one NATO ally to spend nearly 4 percent of its GDP on defence while the others spend between 1 and 2 percent.
So for these and other reasons I believe it is time for the next Strategic Defence and Security Review to ask whether, over the coming decade, we should decisively increase the proportion of GDP we devote to defence.’
Given that Hunt recently held meetings with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, it’s likely that the topic would have been raised. It’s no great secret that the Trump administration is frustrated with its NATO allies for – as they see it – failing to pull their weight. Defence is also an issue that is of much interest to Tory MPs – who worry about the cuts to the military. There are few bits of spending more popular with Tory MPs than defence. It follows that any leadership pitch – and Hunt is seen as a favourite in a leadership contest – involving a defence pitch is likely to land well with the party.
However, given that Penny Mordaunt has only recently been appointed Defence Secretary – in the wake of Gavin Williamson’s sacking – one would be forgiven for thinking this is the type of big set speech the Secretary of State might have wished to make as her first intervention. Government departments were not given advance notice of the contents. Hunt may be making the right noises – but he risks irking some of his colleagues in the process.