Sunak blocks Nato chief from answering reporter’s question about election and new defence spending pledge

PM answers for Nato chief that it ‘wouldn’t be appropriate for him’ to be drawn into domestic politics – before launching into political attack on Labour

Andy Gregory,Archie Mitchell
Tuesday 23 April 2024 20:29 BST
Sunak blocks Nato chief Stoltenberg from answering question about general election

Rishi Sunak has awkwardly stepped in to prevent the head of Nato from answering a reporter’s question about the military alliance’s preparations for how the upcoming general election could affect Britain’s defence commitments.

During a joint press conference in Warsaw with Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister promised to boost Britain’s defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030 in a pledge costing taxpayers £75bn over the next six years.

Mr Sunak warned that the world is “the most dangerous it has been since the end of the Cold War”, and pledged to put Britain’s defence industry “on a war footing”, in what marked the latest flurry of activity by the PM as he seeks to close the polling gap with Labour ahead of this year’s election.

(Henry Nicholls/PA Wire)

But in a jarring exchange, Mr Sunak in effect blocked Mr Stoltenberg from answering a question on whether Nato has had discussions with Labour on whether it would stick to the pledge – answering for the Nato chief that it “wouldn’t be appropriate for him” to comment on the UK’s domestic politics.

Instead, Mr Sunak then used the stage in Poland to paint his pledge as signifying a choice for voters between the Tories and Labour, while launching a political attack on Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn, claiming the latter wanted to “turn the army into the peace corps”.

The bizarre moment came after The Guardian’s Pippa Crerar asked Mr Sunak about his welfare reform plans before putting to Mr Stoltenberg: “All the polls in the UK suggest we may end up having a different government after the election.

“How reassured are you by this really important defence commitment given by Mr Sunak if he then ends up finding himself out of office later this year? Have you had discussions because of that, taking the precautionary principle, with the British opposition?”

Concluding his response, Mr Sunak said: “I’ll let Jens talk – probably not right to draw Jens into domestic politics actually, given that wouldn’t be appropriate for him. But what I would say is, we’re very clear that this is a choice we [the UK government] have made – a choice that I’ve made.

(PA Wire)

“When the general election comes there will be a choice on this topic.

“Keir Starmer is someone who not once but twice asked the British people to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn wanted to leave Nato, get rid of our nuclear deterrent and turn the army into the peace corps,” he said, adding: “So that’s the choice at the next election.”

Before turning to a question from the Telegraph, he continued: “The right thing to do today is increase [defence spending] to 2.5 per cent. That’s what you get with us, we’re consistent about this. You all know where we stand. I think that choice will be very clear come the election.”

Later wrapping up the joint conference, Mr Sunak repeatedly said, “perfect” after two of the Nato chief’s final answers to a reporter, before ushering Mr Stoltenberg off the stage with a nod of his head.

Mr Sunak’s announcement comes just weeks after Sir Keir Starmer confirmed his own ambition to boost the defence budget to 2.5 per cent of GDP, a pledge initially made by Boris Johnson in 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Responding to the PM’s statement, shadow defence secretary John Healey said the Conservatives “have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted on defence”.

He added: “The British public will judge ministers by what they do, not what they say. Labour will conduct a strategic defence and security review in the first year in government to get to grips with the threats we face, the state of our armed forces, and the resources required.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in