Boris Johnson has sought to defuse anger over a No 10 briefing that he would ditch a manifesto commitment on defence spending but faced criticism from Labour for breaking a pledge made even more crucial by the Ukraine war.
Speaking to reporters en route to the Nato summit in Madrid from the gathering of G7 leaders in southern Germany, the UK prime minister insisted the 2019 manifesto commitment to increase the defence budget by at least 0.5% a year above inflation would not be breached.
On Monday, it emerged that No 10 had been warning it will most likely ditch the 0.5%-plus-inflation target, with the inflation rate above 9% and expected to rise.
A senior government source said there was a need for “a reality check on things that were offered in a different age”, also citing the money spent on Covid measures.
“The intention is always to honour manifesto commitments, but they were made before £400bn was spent coping with a global pandemic that no one could have possibly foreseen,” they said.
The stance could cause a clash with the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, who has reportedly written to Johnson to seek a defence spending target of 2.5% of GDP. He will also be at the Nato summit.
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons defence committee, told the Guardian he was concerned about the dropping of the manifesto commitment and called for a rapid increase in defence spending to a target of 3% of GDP over the next three years.
Asked if he would be concerned about the abandonment of the 0.5% measure, he said: “Very much so. The last integrated review was cost-neutral, so a tilt to cyber and space defence came at the expense of our conventional capabilities, which we now need.”
In an argument that did not appear to fully tally with the wording in the manifesto, Johnson argued the government would meet the 0.5%-plus-inflation target, as inflation would be measured over the long term.
“We have been running way ahead of that target for a while now,” he said. “We’re confident we will beat that this year. You don’t look at inflation as a single data point, you look at it over the life of the parliament, and we’re confident that we’ll make that.”
Asked why Nato calculated that the UK’s defence spending was fractionally over 2.1% of GDP rather than his claimed 2.3%, Johnson said: “I’ll have to get back to you about the discrepancy.”
The shadow defence secretary, John Healey, said: “The prime minister keeps breaking his defence pledges to the British public.
“With threats increasing and rising Russian threats, ministers must reboot defence plans and halt army cuts now.”
Johnson also said there would be conversations in the Spanish capital about the idea of increasing the Nato-wide target from 2% of GDP to 2.5% even though a majority of members even reach the current level.
“It was the UK that brought in the idea there should be a 2% floor,” the prime minister said. “We will have to have a conversation at Nato about where we go next. That’s something we will be talking about with friends and colleagues.”
More widely on the summit, Johnson said he hoped it would be marked by a similar sense of unity and purpose over supporting Ukraine he saw at the G7 event.
“The longer the conversation went on, the more unified people were,” Johnson argued. “It was really quite extraordinary how, before we spoke to [the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy], before the attack on the shopping centre, people had really started to coalesce around a very robust position.”
One of the key subjects of the Nato summit will be efforts by Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, something Turkey has misgivings about. There was, Johnson said, “progress being made” over this.
He also reiterated his argument that a united and consistent front about Ukraine was vital unless other countries – he did not name China but that was the country mentioned in the question – were tempted to launch similar invasions, in this case of Taiwan.
Johnson said: “I just think it’s very important that countries around the world should no be able to read across from events in Europe and draw the conclusion that the world will simply stand idly by if boundaries are changed by force. That’s one of the most important lessons that we pick up from Ukraine.”