In Brief

Why Gavin Williamson is blackmailing Theresa May with a £20bn threat

Defence secretary says he made PM - and he ‘can break her’

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has threatened to bring down Theresa May’s government unless she promises to spend another £20bn on the British Armed Forces.

What is Williamson threatening?

The former chief whip, who played a pivotal role in the prime minister’s leadership campaign, has warned that unless extra money is made available for the Defence Department, up to 20 Tory MPs would vote down the next budget, effectively passing a motion of no confidence in May and her government.

According to The Mail on Sunday, Williamson is said to have boasted to one army officer: “I made her - and I can break her.” 

What has the reaction been?

The Mail on Sunday described the threat as “astonishing” and said a ”formidable array of political and military figures are lining up behind Gavin Williamson in his power struggle with No. 10”.

The former head of the British Army, General the Lord Dannatt, also told the newspaper that he feared the defence secretary could be forced to resign over the issue.

Why is Williamson blackmailing May?

According to the Daily Mirror, Williamson “faces a backlash over what is the latest of a series of Westminster leaks - which conveniently portray the defence secretary as a brave man standing up to his boss”. The Sun says other critics accuse him of “trying to whip up the row to boost his own chances of becoming next PM”.

The furore over defence spending comes after the prime minister pledged an extra £20bn for the NHS, partly to be funded by a so-called Brexit dividend. This would bring annual spending on the health service to £126bn, more than three times more than the Defence Department’s budget, which is expected to be about £40bn by the next election, due in 2022.

The Times has claimed that the handout “sparked a mutiny” within the Cabinet, with at least six senior cabinet members demanding more money for police, defence, housing and schools.

The Independent reports that “in a meeting with Ms May, Mr Williamson reportedly asked for a similar windfall for his own department and was turned down”.

A number of newspapers have said the increase to the NHS budget has boosted the Tory leadership prospects of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the expense of rivals such as Williamson.

May made matters worse when she questioned whether the UK had to remain a ‘tier one’ military power - meaning it can deploy the full spectrum of nuclear, conventional and cyberforces.

Does the military need more money?

The Defence Department has faced repeated cuts over the past decade. Whitehall sources have warned that Britain is “at risk of losing its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council because of the dwindling size and capability of its military,” says The Sunday Times.

With both France and Germany expected to boost defence spending over the coming years, the UK could lose its place as Europe’s biggest military spender, dealing a blow to the country’s global standing.

In a not-so-veiled threat this weekend, the chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis, said: “There need be no political risk to the prime minister – if she does the right thing.”

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