Boris Johnson has unveiled a post-Brexit review of foreign and defence policy in an attempt by an emboldened Downing Street to determine Britain’s national security strategy for the next five years.
The six-month exercise is another step in the prime minister’s assertion of control following the controversial cabinet reshuffle, and comes amid growing cyber threats and uncertainty about the UK’s place in the world.
It will be led by Sir Alex Ellis, a civil servant – with input from Dominic Cummings, who has been a sharp critic of overspending by the Ministry of Defence and the methods of BAE Systems and other key contractors.
Some Whitehall sources said that amounted to a defeat for Cummings, who they said had been struggling to appoint officials to work on the review because of his aggressive reputation across Whitehall.
But while Ellis will report directly to Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, and Britain’s most powerful civil servant, the terms of review made clear it would also involve “a small team in Downing Street comprised of experts from inside and outside the civil service”.
Defence and security reviews traditionally take place every five years, but this one will be different as it will be considering the country’s foreign policy needs at a time when the UK has just left the EU and as it weighs up how closely it wants to be aligned to the United States.
Prof Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute thinktank said: “What they have to deal with is an increased uncertainty about our long-term relationship with Europe on one hand, and whether we can rely on Donald Trump’s United States on the other.”
But there was criticism from some experts because Downing Street is allowing the review to run at the same time as the comprehensive spending review – which they said meant that any of its conclusions would be limited by wider financial constraints.
Dr Alan Mendoza, executive director of the Henry Jackson Society thinktank, said he believed that amounted to “a major victory of the civil service over the PM’s advisers”.
He added: “The announced approach risks decisions on our foreign policy strategy being overtaken by short-term financial concerns.”
The Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and other government departments and agencies will feed into the central review team, while final decisions will be taken by the National Security Council, a group of senior ministers chaired by the prime minister.
Key issues under consideration will be how far the UK wants to develop an integrated offensive hacking capability after turf wars between the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ have hampered progress since the previous 2015 review, at a time when Russia and China are engaged in long-term, low-level cyber warfare.
It will also take a particular look at how the MoD and intelligence agencies purchase equipment in a nod to Cummings, who has made little secret of his criticisms of defence budgeting, which has historically favoured large capital spending on aircraft carriers and sophisticated jet fighters.
Last March, before returning to government, Johnson’s chief aide wrote that the procurement process “has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists”.
Tackling serious and organised crime will also form part of the review – which is traditionally under-resourced compared with spending on combating terrorism – prompting some analysts to ask whether it could lead to a revamp of the much criticised National Crime Agency.
The previous 2015 review had tried to focus spending on fighting Isis and other non-state terror organisations by emphasising the need for smaller expeditionary and special forces. But those involved said that it underestimated Russia’s conventional military capability, which has enabled the Kremlin to become a major player in the Syrian civil war, and after it was implemented it drifted back to focus on conventional military spending.
As he announced the review Boris Johnson said: “As the world changes we must move with it – harnessing new technologies and ways of thinking to ensure British foreign policy is rooted firmly in our national interests, now and in the decades ahead.”