Yesterday’s announcement that the UK will buy equipment for the campaign against Isis has set the rumour mill into overdrive. The Tories have been having none of the pause their opponents demanded and settled on a quick fix. But the decision to push ahead is largely driven by the need to reassure Britain’s allies and, possibly, the press.
The government has reached an agreement with the US, France and the Netherlands – with Israel potentially in talks – to spend £1.2bn to buy military kit for the fight against Isis. British jets and drones will be used in an air campaign, in which British special forces will carry out other missions. This is something the Labour leadership must have known about but the announcement, all at once, will mollify rightwing critics of the Brexit-related defence cuts.
For Theresa May, facing a looming exit from the EU and struggling to save her premiership, a declaration of intent will allow her to say that Britain is engaged in an international campaign against terrorism. But that is only part of the story. Consider the other announcement: £2.5bn of funding for the Ministry of Defence’s international development budget. The Combined UK-Israel Delegation will “work closely with each country’s special services and defence forces to provide support to each other, and to our common values”.
This is not all about bombing Isis. The new agreement between Britain and Israel means troops will join a joint search-and-rescue effort on the ground. It is a reminder that, even while British jets and drones are dropping their bombs, the frontline is likely to be combat experienced by British soldiers in a war where defence is vitally important.
Or consider another piece of news from Rome last week – that Britain is contributing £41m to the construction of “demining schools and other educational facilities” in Yemen. The UK has already poured £365m into the war in Yemen and now MPs have been invited to tour a “safe zone” being built for children in the country, somewhere to go if they fall victim to a mine. There is the Chinese concern about potential environmental damage. There is the small matter of a new war taking place, in which the humanitarian consequences will be tragically worse than the destruction caused by Isis.
There is an agenda at work in all these announcements. At a time when the Tory prime minister is reviled by many in her own party, the expensive strengthening of links with Israeli and American military industries is the clearest sign of a determination to remind Tory voters of the sacrifices made by the country’s allies in the second world war.
Of course we should not forget that the Tories put resources into commemorating the conflict and supporting a bill to expand wartime museums. There is every reason to think there is an element of repetition about funding for the campaign against Isis and the allocation of £80m for another war in Yemen. It may be that, behind the scenes, the British government has found other, hidden reasons to take this decision. The wartime museum bill may provide helpful cover for war spending.
Just as the Tory party is trying to win back the support of elderly Tory voters, who opposed the second world war because of its cost, so the Tories are now fighting off the threat of the political weather. Last week’s figures on the Treasury’s books – indicating the huge size of Britain’s debts – simply confirm Labour’s case. For a government with the poorest prospects for the next decade, the time to be above the fray is now, and not this year.