Good evening Conference,
I am delighted to be here today in Birmingham. It’s been great to come back here since 2018. It’s been even nicer to have a musical accompaniment from the people outside who think we should gather today with a theme tune. The amazing thing about Birmingham is it’s one of Britain’s great cities and an outstanding example of the rich fabric that makes up our country. You know too often, politicians and journalists think the world stops and starts in London.
Andy Street and his excellent team here in Birmingham demonstrate quite the opposite. And as a Lancashire MP, I am truly grateful for the work started by Boris Johnson to level up this country. I know that our new Prime Minister is equally dedicated to continue that mission.
But as we gather today for the start of our conference, I want to start by first of all paying tribute to the late Queen. The motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is “Serve to Lead”.
In it, lies the key to understanding that to be a leader, you must put your soldiers’ needs before yourself. You must be selfless. Our late Queen was the very embodiment of that motto.
She put her subjects before herself. She put her duty to them before her own needs. The men and women of the armed forces knew that and were inspired by that.
To know that they had a Commander-in-Chief who was truly focused on their wellbeing and their interests, while expecting the highest of standards from them, was genuinely inspirational to all those who served.
We will all miss her greatly. In these anxious and globally unstable times, fanned by the polarising flames of social media, we all need some constant reassurance in our lives. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second was that constant.
Another constant, is the men and women of our Armed Forces. They have been with us through all our troubles. Most recently through Covid, through the evacuation from Afghanistan, through the invasion of Ukraine and again, just a few weeks ago, on parade to say goodbye to the Commander-in-Chief.
They always display the finest qualities and dedication to duty. Day in, day out, they defend us and our allies.
When I took the reins at the Ministry of Defence in 2019, I undertook to reform defence to ensure that our forces had what they needed, to do the tasks given to them by Government.
But I also drew on my own experiences, to once and for all put a stop to the “hollowing out” of our forces. For decades, Prime Ministers had wanted more, but Chancellors had wanted less.
The result of this, for as long as I can remember, was an Armed Forces that on the surface looked fine, but inside struggled with ammunition stocks, kit maintenance, ship availability, and low living standards.
In short, I was determined that whatever funding we got, we spent it making sure that it could deliver a ready, deployable force – well equipped, well armed and well trained.
And with any new funding, the priority would not be shiny new toys, but fixing what we had first. Only then could we embark on funding to invest for the new and modernisation.
So I put the challenge of being a threat-lead and modern Armed Forces at the heart of the 2020 Defence Command Paper.
Boris Johnson shared that view and handed us the biggest settlement since the Cold War. He recognised that we needed to invest in our Armed Forces and not to manage decline.
And Liz Truss, our new Prime Minister, has gone even further and done what will be needed to finish the job. When she was Foreign Secretary, she knew what the threats were out there and she knew the influence that Britain’s Armed Forces delivered around the world.
But she also knew that Defence can’t live on historical reputation alone. It needed real investment and for the first time a government that would move it up their priority list.
The Prime Minister’s pledge to invest 3% of GDP by 2030 is what we needed to keep this country and our allies safe.
Liz Truss knows this is not a “discretionary” choice, but a necessity. The instability and insecurity we see around the world will not go away by itself.
On Friday, President Putin illegally annexed part of Ukraine. Another European state. To accompany this occasion, he delivered another tirade at the world.
He did this at the very moment his own poorly equipped troops, appallingly led were being routed from the East of Ukraine.
As countries around the world condemned his actions, he attended a concert, cheered on by bussed-in crowds. Ridiculous as his homophobic, anti-West rants were, what he didn't say was just as interesting.
He never addressed the tens of thousands of Russian widows and mothers, whose young men were sent to their deaths by incompetent generals and because of his illegal invasion.
Or the more than fifty thousand injured personnel he is frightened to visit. He didn’t address the charges of war crimes his forces have been involved in.
Because for President Putin, there is no going back. His intentions are clear. He will not stop in Ukraine. He will push west. His own essays say as much.
He genuinely believes in some Tsarist, imperialist destiny to unite the supposedly ancient people of Rus. By all means at his disposal, he seeks to pursue “ethnic nationalism” in a way we haven’t seen since the 1940s.
Be under no illusion - he is dangerous. Ukraine says they are fighting not just for themselves, but also for us. And they are right. It is why we must stand strong beside them. It is why we must not let brutality and disregard for human rights triumph over the values of all we hold dear.
And our response matters, because the world is watching. The question some will be asking is “does the international community have the determination, the unity and the resilience to stand up for each other and for the rule of law?”.
Well, to date, the answer is a clear and resounding “Yes”. In February this year, the day after Russia’s invasion, I held the first international donor conference on Ukraine to coordinate military aid.
We had 25 countries in attendance from across Europe. That rapidly grew to 35. And the aid to Ukraine is not shrinking, it is growing.
Last week, I visited Ukraine again to see what more we can do. Despite the attacks, they are strong and they are winning.
I am proud to say that British weapons, like the NLAWs, are helping to make a real difference. But as well as British hardware, we are helping with our training as well.
We committed to training ten thousand Ukrainian troops this year and we are supported by Danes, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, Canadians, Estonians, Lithuanians and New Zealanders all here delivering for this challenge.
I am pleased to say that we are committed to training, next year, a further twenty or thirty thousand troops, as required.
President Putin must see the folly of his invasion. His army is broken, his international reputation is shattered, and Russia’s standing in the world is lesser than it was. His errors are strategic.
Instead of discouraging NATO, he has pushed Sweden and Finland to join it. No one made them, but seeing Russia’s behaviour changed the long-standing positions of two countries who for decades were wedded to neutrality.
I am delighted they are now joining NATO. But how unnecessary his invasion has been and at a cost of huge suffering to all in Ukraine and wider.
But Putin’s reactions are wider than just Ukraine. His reach goes further. This week, we saw the “mysterious” damage inflicted to the Nordstream pipelines.
And it should remind us all how fragile our economy and infrastructure is to such hybrid attacks. Our intent is to protect them. Our internet and energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables. Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure.
So for that reason I can announce that we have recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.
The first Multi Role Survey Ship for Seabed Warfare will be purchased by the end of this year, fitted out here in the UK, and in operation before the end of next year. The second ship will be built in the UK and we will plan to make sure it covers all our vulnerabilities.
We have no time to lose. The Prime Minister is determined to invest in defence, stand up to Russia, stand by Ukraine, and prepare us to face the threats for tomorrow. The reality is that we can’t afford NOT to invest 3 per cent of GDP in defence and our Prime Minister understands that.
To not do so would imperil our security and risk having Armed Forces out of step with their peers – and more worryingly out of step with our enemies.
Conference, I know times are tough and up and down Britain, people are struggling with the effects of global inflation and rising interest rates. Sadly, we are not alone in this. Across Europe and the G7, the cost of living is going up and up and service personnel are no different.
That is why this year I have rolled out free “wrap-around childcare” for all in the forces. It is why I have frozen the daily food charge for our personnel and capped rent increases at 1 per cent for service families. If we don’t look after the people in our Armed Forces, the most important equipment of all, then what is the point of having our Armed Forces?
As well as helping with the cost of living, the Ministry of Defence is one of the key drivers of economic growth across the UK.
We support 219,000 private sector jobs with more than £20bn of investment in equipment and support every year.
Here in the Midlands, in Telford, we are making the new Challenger 3 turrets and Boxer armoured vehicles. In all, Defence spending contributes over 400,000 jobs in this country, right across the Union.
We are building ships in Scotland, manufacturing armoured vehicles in Wales, and assembling the, now world-famous, NLAW anti-tank missiles in Northern Ireland – bringing new jobs, investment and opportunities to every part of the United Kingdom.
There is more to do.
Conference, for those who think that the solution is to turn to Labour however, I would say that now is not the time to deploy Captain Mainwaring and his platoon to help with our Nation’s defence.
You can see the Labour Party now – Captain Keir Mainwaring, marching around his bunker in Islington, with Sergeant “Blair” Wilson whispering in his ear, and Private “Corbyn” Godfrey telling us how “DOOMED” we all are.
But you know, Mr Starmer, investing in Defence and supporting our troops requires a lot more than waving a Union Jack. You have to actually fund them.
You have to actually recognise that as the threat changes, so must the investment. In the world we live in today, there is no place for Labour’s “Home Guard” amateurs.
So, Mr Starmer, when will you match the Prime Minister’s pledge of 3% of GDP by 2030? Will you put your money where your mouth is?
And before I end, I want to pay tribute to my team at Defence. I have been incredibly lucky as Secretary of State to have had such excellent Ministers.
I want to thank Jeremy Quinn, Leo Docherty and Suzanne Webb for the work they have done.
And I am sorry to see Johnny Mercer leave the Government.
But I also want to welcome Sarah Atherton and Alec Shelbrooke to their posts. They will do an outstanding job.
Our PPSs Ian Levy and Mark Eastwood are also key and are valued contributors to the team. For that is what it is… a team in Defence.
So, Conference, whatever the world may throw at us in the next few years, and no one says it is going to be easy, you can be sure that this team, alongside the UK’s Armed Forces, will be working day and night, across the globe, to defend us and keep our allies safe.
Thank you very much.