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The government must delay a wide-ranging defence and foreign policy review that began at the beginning of this year, a former head of the Foreign Office and national security adviser has said.
No.10 announced plans at the end of last year for an integrated review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development, which is expected to be published alongside a comprehensive spending review this summer.
But Lord Peter Ricketts, who as the government’s national security adviser oversaw a similar review in 2010, said neither the integrated review nor the spending exercise were likely to go ahead as planned as departments scrambled to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.
“It's a very big and detailed and important strategic review, and it can't be completed between now and July, in my view,” Ricketts told CSW.
Ricketts, who spent four years as permanent under secretary of the Foreign Office before becoming Britain’s first national security adviser in 2010, said he did not expect the review to be completed until early next year.
“It seems to me that the government is going to be doing nothing but this crisis until the mid year, probably. And so it would be sensible to give themselves another six months, nine months… They needn’t be precise about a time when they delay it. But I think they now need to be making clear there will be a delay and new timings will be agreed,” he said.
During his two years as national security adviser, Ricketts oversaw the 2010 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review and set up the National Security Council, which will decide how the next review’s findings are implemented.
It is also unlikely the government will be able to carry out a full spending review by this summer, given the civil service’s stretched capacity during the pandemic, according to Ricketts.
“You can’t possibly, I think, do a sensible job on that between now and July,” the crossbench peer said, adding that any future review would need to take account of the “vast additional spending” on measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak and support people and businesses.
“So it may be that they need a one-year spending review settlement in July, to keep things going for a year, and then come back to both the strategy review and the spending review in the early part of next year.”
Ricketts said there would be “no shame” in making such a choice. “There's no reason the government should be criticised for it, it seems to me to be the absolutely obvious thing to do,” he said.
Brexit transition extension ‘inevitable’
Ricketts also said the government would need to request an extension to the Brexit transition period “fairly soon”, as it would be impossible to complete all the negotiations needed to define the UK’s future relationship with the EU by 31 December.
“I'm absolutely clear that it needs to be delayed, the end of the transition period. I don't see how in the current extreme crisis that we're in – because I think it is now a real, full-on crisis over the pandemic – that we can possibly find the bandwidth to negotiate these extremely detailed, difficult, controversial agreements on future relationship, there's no way we can do it,” Ricketts said.
Last week Sir Simon Fraser, who succeeded Ricketts as FCO perm sec in 2010, said the government must not rule out an extension in light of the coronavirus crisis, as it was looking increasingly unlikely the UK and EU would hammer out a comprehensive deal by December
He told CSW it would be “irresponsible” to end the transition period under circumstances that created more uncertainty for businesses, given Covid-19 had already created a “major economic crisis”.
“It seems to me it would be irresponsible, frankly, if we come out of this crisis in autumn to then present business with a whole new set of uncertainties around a very significant change in the status of our economic relationship with Europe, either through no deal or through a very thin deal at the end of the year,” Fraser, who was also previously perm sec for the then-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said.
Ricketts went further, saying the government would need to “face the inevitable” and call for an extension within the next month or two. The withdrawal agreement the prime minister signed last year allows for an extension of up to two years, but this must be signed off by 1 July.
“I know it's difficult for the government to accept, but since half the negotiators on both sides seem to already have the virus and now ministers as well, it feels to me it's the time fairly soon to just accept that it should be delayed, say for another year,” he said.
“I don't think anybody would be surprised or outraged by that, if they think about it... It does create some problems about budgets and so on, but it seems to me just impossible that we can do a good job of negotiating something as difficult as that in this current crisis.”
Over the weekend, Boris Johnson announced he was self isolating after testing positive for Covid-19. Health secretary Matt Hancock is also among a handful of ministers to have contracted the virus.
This came after EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month, and a day later his UK counterpart David Frost began self isolating after showing symptoms of the virus.