Ben Wallace is giving a speech this afternoon in which he will urge Boris Johnson to increase defence spending. The Defence Secretary – who has long been close to Johnson – is making his campaign public, having apparently already secured a nod from the Prime Minister that he will get something. He wants a 20 per cent increase in defence spending in the next five years, and to push Britain’s budget for its armed forces up to 2.5 per cent of GDP, having secured the 2 per cent target. He is speaking at the Royal United Services Institute event alongside the chief of the general staff General Sir Patrick Sanders, who is, naturally, arguing that spending should rise because ‘this is our 1937 moment’ and the army needs to prepare to fight Vladimir Putin directly.
What is less clear is how supportive the Treasury is, particularly given Rishi Sunak spends most cabinet meetings talking about the value of fiscal restraint. Approving noises from No. 10 are not the same as getting sign-off from the man next door. And defence spending has played second fiddle in recent years to something voters have got even more agitated about, which is the NHS - as this graph from Paul Johnson of the IFS shows.
— Paul Johnson (@PJTheEconomist) June 28, 2022
Look at how health spending has replaced defence spending pic.twitter.com/RQiGLMYuq5
If defence spending is to rise, does that mean health spending will have to start going back down? That’s often the hope of the Treasury – and indeed of health secretaries who spend a lot of time trying to extract commitments to efficiencies from key NHS figures before giving them the next wodge of cash.
But Sanders’s comments show that even though Ukraine isn’t on the front pages as much at the moment, the possibility of the conflict coming much, much closer to home is growing stronger. Putin’s attack on the shopping centre in Kremenchuk was a message from the Russian president to G7 leaders: he’s not bothered by their tough talk. At some point soon the West may feel it needs to do more than impose sanctions. And that’s why Wallace feels it’s worth making an argument that’s often conducted entirely behind closed doors, in public.