COVID crisis derails Britain's plan to recast its global role

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: The British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is pulled from its berth by tugs before its maiden voyage, in Rosyth, Scotland
FILE PHOTO: The British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is pulled from its berth by tugs before its maiden voyage, in Rosyth, Scotland

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's plans to define its post-Brexit role on the world stage risk being derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic after a long-term spending plan was cancelled on Wednesday, throwing a review of defence and diplomatic strategy into doubt.

Elected last year with a large majority and a mandate to "Get Brexit Done", Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to carve out a role for Britain as the swashbuckling vanguard of a new era of global cooperation and free trade, backed by cutting-edge modern military and cyber capabilities.

But the coronavirus pandemic has scrambled those priorities.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak was forced on Wednesday to scrap plans to publish a three-year department-by-department spending plan, saying the unprecedented uncertainty caused by the virus meant he would instead only set out a one-year plan.

That has had a knock-on impact for the what has been billed by Johnson as the "biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War" - often referred to as the 'integrated review'.

"We are considering the implications of the one-year spending review on the integrated review and we'll provide an update on that in due course," Johnson's spokesman told reporters.

The possibility of a delay is causing concern, particularly in the defence sector which had been keenly awaiting news of what sort of capabilities the government would prioritise over the coming decade, and how much money would be available.

Britain's defence minister said the world did not stop for domestic "reviews" of national defence, and that adversaries would be unlikely to be halted by an absence of strategy.

"In an area of constant competition, a global Britain has no choice but to step up," Ben Wallace told the Atlantic Future Forum.

"The world does not stop for our reviews, our adversaries will not halt (in) the absence of our strategies, and the UK's defence can never be paused, in the face of financial uncertainty."

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, William James and Elizabeth Piper; editing by Kate Holton and Stephen Addison)