Outlook for the Royal Navy in the wake of the 2017 general election

The uninspiring and complacent election campaign run by Theresa May and the Conservative party delivered something of a shock result. Universally expected to increase their number of seats, the Tories lost their Parliamentary majority and are now forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to remain in power.

As expected, defence issues got little attention in the election. Even in the wake of the London Bridge and Manchester terrorist attacks, internal security issues seemed to create little public and media discussion. The main public debate on defence, prior to the election was held at RUSI on 22nd May and was not even attended by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. It was obvious that most of the audience and journalists attending the debate were far better informed on the issues than the floundering politicians on the panel.

Brexit and political uncertainty ahead

The election result leaves a Prime Minister with her authority badly undermined. Only the risk of letting Corbyn into power is preventing the Tories holding a leadership contest at this juncture. After interminable election speeches about “strong and stable government” we have the exact opposite, a situation that impedes prompt decision making and firm action, something that is urgently needed at the MoD. The pressures of Brexit, Tory leadership problems, conflict with the DUP coalition or inadequate working majority could all result in a government collapse. A very unpopular new general election in the coming months could be the result, or a Labour/SNP minority coalition government could be waiting in the wings which would, of course, be very bad news for the RN.

Theresa May seems about to abandon the policies of austerity and debt reduction and put more money into public services. Defence will likely be at the back of the queue should any new money be forthcoming. Assuming the Tories are able to remain in power, we can look forward to them mostly saying the right things, while continuing to underfund and defence with more of the inevitable hollowing-out of capability that results.

It is interesting to note that in the constituencies where the RN has its English bases, the incumbent MP was replaced. Tory Oliver Colville lost to Labour’s Luke Pollard in Plymouth Sutton. Tory Flick Drummond lost to Labour’s Stephen Morgan in Portsmouth South. The SNP’s spokesman on defence, Brendan O Hara, who is MP for the Faslane area had his majority slashed from 8,473 to just 1,328. SNP influence at Westminster was significantly curtailed as Scottish votes moved to the Tories. The Scottish public has grown heartily sick of the SNP’s relentless push for a second independence referendum while failing to address issues they already have responsibility for. This threat to the Union, damage to UK defence and the RN particular, seems to have been averted for now.

Despite Labour losing its third election in a row and having 56 seats less that the Tories, Corbyn’s surprise improvement has even seen hard left elements claiming he should be Prime Minister. There is undoubtedly a renewed vigour within so-called progressive or left-wing politics in the UK and the Conservatives will need to offer a much more positive vision if they are to win the next election. Many moderate elements of the Labour party are supportive of the navy’s case and assure us they remain committed to Trident. After Corbyn finished promising free stuff to his adoring fans at the Glastonbury Festival (on Armed Forces Day), he reportedly said he “expects to be Prime Minister in six months” and would “scrap Trident as soon as he could”. It is difficult to predict how damaging a Corbyn government could be. The cabinet might consist of an anti-forces, anti-Trident, anti-NATO Marxist clique but the majority of moderate Labour MPs would probably obstruct the more extreme measures. The influence of the trade unions would also be a factor in ensuring naval construction programmes are kept on track.

The DUP – strong on defence

The social policies of the DUP and their links with Ulster Unionist militant groups will keep the party at the centre of controversy. They will be particularly loathed by the hard left and Corbyn with his IRA sympathies. Conversely, the DUP is likely to make every effort to keep Tories in power and Corbyn out. Those concerned about defence may have cause to be grateful the DUP has significant influence in government. Of all the party manifestos, theirs offered the best vision and assessment the situation.

“The DUP does not believe that present defence arrangements are adequate enough to cope with the emerging threats in the 21st Century.”

The DUP are firmly behind Trident and NATO, are publicly willing to identify the threat from Russia and understand we can no longer rely so heavily on the United States for our security. They believe another defence review should be conducted which would be “honest about the nature of the threats we face and the consequences of failing to deal with them. Only then can we make the difficult choices about capability and affordability”. It would seem that if there is a “party of defence”, then it is the DUP, and the whole of the UK could benefit if they are able to stiffen Tory resolve on this issue.

Getting the frigate programme underway

The Navy board can enjoy a brief moment of satisfaction that HMS Queen Elizabeth successfully put to sea and is beginning the long journey to restoring UK carrier capability. Looking ahead, getting the frigate programme on track must be an immediate concern. Harriet Baldwin, the defence procurement Minister, has indicated the order for first three Type 26 Frigates will be placed before Parliament closes for summer recess on July 20th. The announcement that steel for the first ship has been cut at BAE Systems on the Clyde is expected any day now. The Tory manifesto actually committed the government to a National Shipbuilding Strategy, which is critical to the future Type 31 frigate programme. An announcement on whether the government will fully implement the recommendations of Sir John Parker’s report is eagerly awaited.

For now, it appears it will be business as usual at the MoD. Michael Fallon remains in post and the previously announced procurement programme is officially unchanged. Unfortunately, financial reality is going to catch up with these promises soon. The £10 billion shortfall in MoD funding identified by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee before the election is actually worse than it appears. The MoD’s Senior Civil Servant, Stephen Lovegrove speaking on 27th June talked of £20 Billion of “efficiency savings” the department must find over the next 10 years. The MoD claim this alarming figure is nothing new, but part of their previously agreed framework. Some of the measures to find this money are already in hand, such as the rationalisation of the defence estate which will see the closure of HMS Sultan and RM Stonehouse. Only if Theresa May’s election promise that “defence spending will rise 0.5% every year until 2022” is honoured, will there be any hope of mitigating the devastating effects of this shortfall. The extent of economic turbulence in the wake of Brexit is also a considerable unknown and the outlook for investment in the RN for the medium to long-term is uncertain. What we can be assured of, is that Britain will need its navy more than ever as it cements its new position in an unstable world.