We were promised the integrated defence review by now. Where is it?

The pandemic can no longer excuse the government’s delays in publishing its strategy for our place in the world

February 05, 2021
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. Troy GB images / Alamy Stock Photo
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. Troy GB images / Alamy Stock Photo

Eleven months ago, the Prime Minister announced an “Integrated Review” of foreign policy, defence, security and international development, to “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives.” The International Relations and Defence Committee, which I chair, had criticised his nebulous concept of “Global Britain,” announced when he was foreign secretary. We saw the Integrated Review as an important opportunity to flesh out the government’s vision for the UK’s international role after Brexit. 

It is therefore disappointing that the publication of the review has repeatedly been delayed, and with each passing day it becomes more so. The latest postponement signals unacceptable drift on this vital undertaking.

It is understandable that the review was paused at the start of the pandemic. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab informed the House of Commons it had recommenced in June 2020 and was expected to conclude in the autumn. Since then, the timeline for publication has drifted. Last month, the Defence Secretary said it would be published in early February, only to be contradicted by the Prime Minister just two days later. 

While we wait, the world has not stood still. We have left the EU. The new US President has been sworn in. The west is increasingly exposed to hybrid threats from Russia and China. What we lack is the government’s framework for how it sees the UK’s position in the world. 

In the meantime, the government has repeatedly put the cart before the horse, taking major decisions on issues central to the review. Three cases stand out. In July, it announced the merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. One might have expected the Integrated Review to consider Whitehall’s international departments and the best framework for delivering the government’s agenda. Instead, abandoning any public display of evidence-based policy making, the decision was announced without regard to the Integrated Review’s unpublished findings.

A second episode followed in November, with the announcement of an additional £16.5bn of funding for defence. The extra resources are welcome. But such a major commitment should have been informed by the findings of the Integrated Review and calibrated with other international priorities. The government should have used the review to identify and prioritise the threats it needs to counter—hybrid and conventional—rather than simply allocating more money.

Just days later, the government once again cut the legs out from under the Integrated Review, by announcing its intention to abandon its statutory commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid. This decision has rightly been met with opposition across parliament. 

Meanwhile, the remit of the review appears to grow by the day. Having failed to produce a soft power strategy—promised back in 2019—we are now told this will be covered by the Integrated Review. 

All the indications are that the review has now been completed. The government should publish it without further delay. Then let’s have a full and frank discussion in both Houses about its findings, and how to make the UK a real force for good in the world.