Should defence be the special case for a funding increase?

There's been a back and forth between Boris Johnson and Ben Wallace over increasing defence spending. Credit: PA

With inflation heading for 11%, last year’s commitment of multi-year funding for defence till 2024/25 will not deliver the 1.5% “real” per annum rise in resources - from a base year of 19/20 - that was heralded by the government. That much is blindingly obvious.

The military may not feel they’ve had any resource increase at all. And over the course of this parliament, defence spending as a share of GDP will fall from 2.2% on the NATO definition last year to uncomfortably close to 2% in 2024/5, and maybe just below thereafter. So calculates the authoritative IFS.

So at a moment when the chief of the general staff Sir Patrick Sanders says the dangers posed by Putin may be as grave as those we faced in 1937, there is a legitimate question whether the defence budget needs topping up and quite considerably.

The problem for the PM and Chancellor is that a powerful case can be made that inflation is savaging the real resources available to schools and hospitals too (not to mention other vital public services) - which are in urgent need of salvation after the ravages of Covid. So why shouldn’t they have big funding increments too?

And what about Tory MPs’ imperative of cutting direct and indirect taxes to ease the cost of living crisis, or deploying much more hard cash on alleviating the devastating famine in Africa, made so much worse by the war in Ukraine, or bringing forward inflation-protecting benefit rises?

The point is that the hunger for cash from important public services has almost never been greater, at a time when government borrowing remains high and is rising again, and the interest rate it pays is soaring.

So the last 24 hours of not very veiled back-and-forth between the defence secretary Ben Wallace and the PM - over when and whether defence should get more money - is the canary in the political coal mine.

The large and growing gap between what vital public services say they need and what the Treasury insists is affordable may overshadow pretty much everything else Johnson wants to do to revive his flagging premiership - and his longevity as PM will probably be determined by whether he appears to be bridging the vortex or is sucked into it.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know