Keir Starmer is making his most dangerous mistake yet

There is no doubt that Britain urgently needs to increase its military spending. The army is too small and insufficiently equipped to carry out major combat operations over a prolonged period, the Royal Air Force lacks warplanes and the Royal Navy barely has enough operational warships to meet its current obligations.

These glaring shortcomings in our military preparedness – and at a time when the global threat environment is growing ever more dangerous – received belated recognition in the final days of Rishi Sunak’s administration. The Conservatives promised to increase defence spending to 2.5% by the end of the decade, the equivalent of investing an extra £75bn over the next six years.

By contrast, Labour is mired in its insistence on matching Sunak’s pledge, without being able to say with any certainty when the target will be met.

The confusion within Labour ranks was clearly evidenced by comments made yesterday by Luke Pollard, the new armed forces minister, when he suggested that any increase in defence spending was dependent on the new government delivering economic growth, without which “there will be no money” for additional funding.

Starmer also failed to offer any clarity when asked about the issue ahead of his visit to Washington. The Prime Minister refused to set a timeframe for the delivery of the additional funds, although he continued to insist that spending 2.5 per cent of national income on defence was an “unwavering commitment”.

To further complicate the picture, Labour is insisting that a new strategic review of defence must first be carried out before deciding when and where the new money will be spent – ​​a process that could mean no firm decisions are made until next year at the earliest. As James Cartlidge, the shadow defence secretary, commented on Labour’s growing unease about its approach to national security, Labour had failed in the first step to present a convincing outline of its future defence plans.

Not that the Conservatives are in a position to criticise Labour. Most of the challenges facing the armed forces today stem from more than a decade of drastic defence cuts, stretching back to the coalition government’s disastrous defence and security strategic review in 2010, which effectively cut the country’s fighting capability by a third. Even when ministers finally realised that the military urgently needed new investment, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sunak and his chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, insisted they would only commit to increased spending when the economic outlook allowed.

The problem with this kind of sophistry, for both Labour and the Conservatives, is that hostile states such as Russia and Iran are not going to allow us the luxury of rebuilding our military strength before they take hostile action. The worsening global threat environment is reflected in the fact that on two occasions in the past two and a half years the stability of the Western alliance has been seriously threatened by the outbreak of unexpected hostilities: first with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, more recently, the Gaza conflict.

The Ukraine conflict forced the West to show its resilience in defending the principle of territorial integrity, while the Gaza conflict has created a major threat to international trade routes, in the form of attacks on merchant ships by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.

Both conflicts indicate a growing volatility in the global security landscape, threats that require an immediate response in terms of rebuilding our military strength, not the politics of delay that appears to be the Starmer government’s forte.

The new Labour Government may be desperate to present its leadership credentials to the outside world, but no-one will take it seriously until ministers have set out a clear and credible programme to safeguard our national security.