Boris Johnson cancelled a National Security Council meeting at short notice last week after disagreement at the heart of government over the scope of a major defence review, intended to shape Britain’s priorities until 2030.
One senior defence official said the NSC meeting was shelved because of tensions between the Cabinet Office and Downing Street over the direction the defence review was taking.
The official cited particular concerns over the paper’s focus on how Britain could use “soft power” to boost the UK’s global presence after Brexit, neglecting conventional military forces.
Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, is said by Whitehall insiders to favour a more traditional approach to the review, focused around the role of the armed forces and military equipment procurement.
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, has pushed for a shift in defence strategy focused on the use of advanced technology, drones and artificial intelligence, but officials said that he was not behind the cancellation of the meeting.
He has previously called Ministry of Defence procurement “disastrous” and has scorned “mediocre” officials; he has been particularly critical of the acquisition, at a cost of £6.2bn, of two aircraft carriers.
“It’s very unusual to call off a National Security Council meeting at short notice,” said one person briefed on the disagreement. “They simply couldn’t agree what the starting point of the defence review should be.”
Downing Street refuses to discuss NSC meetings but officials confirmed that the meeting last Wednesday was postponed. They insisted the move was “not out of the ordinary” and was made because the prime minister had concluded that discussion papers were “not ready”.
The defence review — which Downing Street wants concluded by the autumn — is seen by experts as a once in a generation opportunity for the UK to decide a definitive direction for its armed forces.
One of the biggest decisions is whether to maintain Britain’s two aircraft carriers and the naval forces needed to protect them, or to find savings from these resource-intensive assets to spend elsewhere.
The Ministry of Defence is keen to invest more in military intelligence and also to boost the UK’s cyber arsenal, hiring more hackers and IT professionals to help improve British operations in the cyber sphere, according to a senior official in the department.
However, this is likely to lead to a split with armed forces chiefs who want to focus on upgrading more traditional military hardware.
The tensions between the National Security secretariat and No 10 could raise fresh questions over the dual role played by Mark Sedwill who doubles up as cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant in Whitehall, and Mr Johnson’s national security adviser.