Theresa May had been expected to present proposals at next week’s summit attended by Donald Trump.
The government has failed to complete a review of British defence forces in time for next week’s Nato summit, according to Whitehall sources.
Theresa May had been expected to present detailed proposals for the modernisation of the army, navy and airforce at the Brussels summit.
But, caught up in a row between the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury and Downing Street over spending, ministers failed to meet the deadline.
The prime minister had wanted to set out Britain’s plans for modernising its defence forces in front other members of Nato, in particular Donald Trump. Nato representatives are bracing themselves for a stormy summit, predicting the US president will berate other members of the transatlantic alliance for not spending enough on defence and claiming the US is having to subsidise them.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, in a letter to his UK counterpart, Gavin Williamson, hinted that the UK’s close relationship with the US on defence matters could be undermined unless it did more. If not, it could end up being supplanted by France.
A Whitehall source said the modernising defence review, on which work began a year ago, had fallen foul of a stand-off between May, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and Williamson. Talks over the past fortnight have failed to resolve differences over Williamson’s push for billions more in defence spending.
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No 10 has lined up alongside the Treasury on the issue. A defence source was adamant that May had challenged Williamson on whether the UK had to be “tier one” country, with a full range of capabilities. Williamson was reported in the Mail on Sunday as threatening to break May.
Another Whitehall source said that, with no agreement reached on increasing the MoD budget, the issue would be postponed until after the summit, which takes place on Wednesday and Thursday.
“There is no clear idea of when it will be published,” the source said, adding that a fresh deadline would be set for publication of the review before parliament rises for the summer recess on 24 July, although it is unlikely to be resolved by then. The row seems set to rumble on, with hard decisions having to be delayed until the autumn budget or next year’s spending review.
A Whitehall official blamed the failure to resolve the issue in time on what he called “Brexit paralysis”, with the government unwilling to face up to difficult defence decisions.
The failure to publish a final document as promised will dismay Conservative backbenchers who have been pressing for increased spending and clear decisions.
With no agreement on more money, the MoD and Treasury considered publishing an interim document that would set out the threats posed by Russia as well as from cyberwarfare, but would be free of any hard decision. But ministers shelved this when they realised it would be seen as a messy compromise that would neither satisfy Tory backbenchers with a strong interest in defence, nor impress Trump or other Nato partners.
Although the UK meets the Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, other countries such as France and Germany, which were below the 2%, have promised to significantly increase spending through to 2025.
The MoD budget for 2016-17 was £35.3bn, set to rise to £39.6bn in 2020-21. Williamson is seeking £20bn over the next decade, citing increased Russian activity in the air and at sea as well as alleged cyber-attacks, and with the Salisbury nerve agent attack blamed on the Kremlin.
The Treasury, having committed to spend £20bn more on the NHS, says it has no extra money for defence.
The review was announced just before parliament broke in July last year for the summer recess. Initially, the review covered all the intelligence agencies as well as defence. It was supposed to be a quick review – a rational, detached look at the main threats faced by the UK and what is needed to confront them.