Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been accused by a Conservative MP of “naked ambition” after he floated plans for new military bases in the Caribbean and Far East following Brexit
Mr Williamson said that the UK could be a “true global player” after EU withdrawal, ripping up the policy dating back to the 1960s of pulling back from regions “east of Suez”.
But Remain-backing Tory backbencher Anna Soubry denounced his comments as “utter twaddle”, insisting that EU membership does not constrain UK defence policy.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Williamson said Britons should be “much more optimistic about our future as we exit the European Union”.
He said: “This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.
“For so long – literally for decades – so much of our national view point has actually been coloured by a discussion about the European Union.
“This is our moment to be that true global player once more – and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that.”
He played down the significance of his announcement that troops were being put on standby to assist civil authorities on Brexit day, describing it as “good sensible planning to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible”.
Ms Soubry responded on Twitter: “What utter twaddle. Being a member of the #EU does not impact on our defence policy & never has except that #Brexit will make our country poorer meaning less money to spend on defence. #NakedAmbition.”
Mr Williamson said he was looking at opportunities to establish a UK presence “not just in the Far East but also in the Caribbean as well”.
He declined to identify possible locations, but the Telegraph quoted a source close to the Defence Secretary as saying that new bases – housing service and maintenance staff, supply ships and equipment – could be sited in Singapore or Brunei in the South China Sea, or Montserrat or Guyana in the Caribbean “within the next couple of years”.
Mr Williamson said: “I am … very much looking at how can we get as much of our resources forward based, actually creating a deterrent but also taking a British presence. We are looking at those opportunities not just in the Far East but also in the Caribbean as well.”
He said he expected a dramatic shift in political focus after Brexit – with the UK building deeper relationships with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean states and nations across Africa.
The Defence Secretary predicted these countries would look to the UK for “the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership”.
He said that recent research showed that Britons under-estimated the potential for UK global influence.
The research showed that while “the rest of the world saw Britain standing 10 feet tall – when actually we stood six feet tall – Britons saw us standing five feet tall, not the six, and certainly not the 10”, he said.
Labour MP Chris Leslie, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, said: “Gavin Williamson’s claims that Brexit would allow the UK to build bases in the Far East or the Caribbean betray an ignorance of military strategy that is worrying in a Defence Secretary.”
And Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second EU referendum, said: “Brexit is making Britain a laughing stock, not a force to be reckoned with.
“If the Defence Secretary really thinks Brexit will make Britain a ‘true global player’, he’s not read the reports his own Government have been producing. They tell a different story of Brexit Britain being put through economic ruin and being locked out of key defence capabilities which keep us safe.”