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How Rishi Sunak Cooked the Books With his Defence Spending Pledge

The Prime Minister has gathered huge plaudits from supportive newspapers for his pledge to increase defence spending, while using numbers that simply don’t add up

Rishi Sunak. Photo: PA Image / Alamy

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Rishi Sunak gathered lots of approving front pages in the Conservative-supporting newspapers on Wednesday, after pledging to increase defence spending by £75 billion and pay for it by scrapping 70,000 civil servant jobs.

The £75 billion figure features prominently on the front page of the Telegraph, the Times and Daily Mail. The only problem is that it isn’t really true.

As the Prime Minister’s own spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday, the £75 billion increase is actually based on comparing the total projected defence spend in six years time, with the cash figure spent by the Government today. In other words it is based on stripping out any inflation-based increases that would otherwise have happened anyway.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies have pointed out today, this is a deeply misleading way of presenting the increase, which is in reality closer to just £20-£25 billion in real terms.

And even once you remove this sleight of hand, the pledged increase is still significantly lower than what was promised in the Conservative Party’s own 2019 manifesto, which stated that defence spending would be “at least 0.5 per cent above inflation every year of the new Parliament.” With inflation currently at 3.2%, the Government’s new pledge to raise it to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade still falls a long way short.

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Cooking the Books

Sunak’s book-cooking doesn’t stop there.

Talking about his plans on Wednesday, Sunak claimed that his pledge had been “fully costed”. 

In order to justify this, he claimed that the policy would be paid for by reducing the size of the civil service by 70,000 jobs, which he suggested would save an estimated £4.5 billion a year over six years.

Now the eagle-eyed among you will notice at this point that £4.5 billion times six does not equal £75 billion.

Asked about this today, Sunak’s spokesperson confirmed yet another piece of jiggery-pokery, which is that unlike the £75 billion figure he claims to be increasing defence spending by, the £4.5 billion figure is based on real-terms figures, not cash figures.

In this way he is attempting to use two entirely different methodologies and baselines to estimate the increase in defence spending, versus the amount of money that he will need to save in order to pay for it.

In other words the Prime Minister is massively overstating the size of the increase to defence spending he plans to make, while relatively downplaying the size of the public sector cuts that he would have to make in order to pay for it.

Obviously the use of such dishonest sleights of hands should cause anyone to question how seriously we should take the PM’s entire pledge. If Sunak and his team are so willing to blatantly cook the books about the real-terms costs of their policy, then any claims they make about it all being paid for just by sacking some civil servants should not be taken particularly seriously either.

And with the polls suggesting that the Prime Minister is highly unlikely to be in a position to ever actually implement, let alone pay for his announcement, the unquestioning coverage it received in today’s newspapers now looks incredibly misjudged.

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