Labour security plans backed by former GCHQ chief

Prof Sir David Omand
Prof Sir David Omand said the Conservatives had been guilty of ducking 'tough decisions' on defence during 14 years in power

A former director of GCHQ has backed Labour’s security plans and accused the Tories of putting the effectiveness of Britain’s nuclear deterrent at risk.

Prof Sir David Omand said the Conservatives had been guilty of ducking “tough decisions” on defence during 14 years in power as he endorsed Sir Keir Starmer’s party.

Writing for The Telegraph – you can read the article below – he said Labour policies, including a “triple lock” on Trident, showed voters could trust the party on security.

His remarks represent a major boost for Labour, which has faced Tory attacks over its record on defence under Jeremy Corbyn, its former leader.

Last month, Rishi Sunak used a pre-election speech to claim Britain would be “less safe” under Sir Keir, arguing that he did not have “the strength to lead”. He also hit out at Sir Keir over his refusal to match a pledge to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade.

Sir David, who also served as the UK’s first security and intelligence co-ordinator, wrote: “Labour’s announcement of a ‘triple lock’ on our nuclear deterrent indicates that we can in future trust the party to stick to serious defence policy.”

The “triple lock” commits Labour to completing the construction of four new submarines, delivering any necessary upgrades in future, and maintaining the continuous at sea deterrent.

However, Tories have questioned the party’s commitment to the nuclear deterrent given that senior figures including David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, voted to scrap it under Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

Sir David accused the Conservatives of ineffective decision-making on defence, hitting out at the political chaos that has engulfed the party.

He wrote: “The hardest crises are the slowly burning ones, where the worsening situation has not been spotted, or sadly – as has happened in recent years – smoulders in full view but while the necessary tough decisions are ducked.

“It is too easy to ignore the warnings of potential trouble because they don’t fit the political narrative of those in charge, or the ministers involved keep changing, or the problem seems too expensive to fix, or leaders are fearful of media and financial market blame.

“We all know in our hearts that risks increase and it costs much more to extinguish these fires after they finally burst into the open than if they are put out earlier.”

He said “one of the worst examples” was in 2010 when Lord Cameron, then the prime minister, delayed replacing the Vanguard submarines that carry Trident missiles.

He initially pushed back the decision by five years until after the 2015 election to save billions of pounds from the defence budget. Once re-elected, he delayed it again because of the EU referendum, with the new Dreadnought class submarines eventually approved by Theresa May, his successor.

As a result of the delay, the current Vanguard submarines had to be refitted at a cost of £560 million, and will now be in service until the early 2030s. Sir David wrote: “This has meant unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds as well as great strain on our submariners and their families.”

Sir David was the director of GCHQ, the Government’s intelligence agency, from 1996 to 1997, after which he became the most senior Home Office civil servant. He served most of his career at senior levels under Sir Tony Blair, being promoted to security and intelligence co-ordinator in 2002 and retiring in 2005.

The former mandarin, a visiting professor in the war studies department of King’s College London, said he was “attracted to” Sir Keir’s promise to end the chopping and changing of policy under the Tories.

He also praised Labour’s plans to accelerate the drive to net zero and set up a nationally owned energy company, saying they would boost Britain’s resilience.


In my recent book, How to Survive a Crisis, I warned that we must prepare ourselves for more and deeper crises over the next decade, with consequences that may be more extensive than most of us want to imagine, writes Prof Sir David Omand.

Yes, we have had crises before and survived – but we are entering a turbulent era and we are much more vulnerable. Today, our adversaries do not hesitate to attack and disrupt our digital infrastructure, our information space and our supply chains.

Sometimes this is for criminal gain, like the ransomware attacks plaguing the NHS and business. Sometimes it is an attempt to sow division between us and our allies – for example over support for Ukraine – and sometimes the aim is to weaken us by encouraging discord between those within the UK itself who take violently opposing views over current issues.

Navigating the crises to come will need steady hands. As director of GCHQ and the first UK security and intelligence co-ordinator, I saw first-hand how dedicated our adversaries are in their mission to undermine the UK and erode our democratic way of life.

They will seek to expose and exploit our vulnerabilities wherever they find them – for example, our current dependence on energy imports.

Across the globe, countries see the rise of a more powerful China working with an aggressive Russia and are hedging their allegiances, making overlapping deals with friends and foes alike.

We sadly lack resilience across many of the systems on which ordinary life depends. We must now have a period of stability of government to assess our priorities and ensure action is maintained long enough to make a difference, not just talked about.

Stability is a precious commodity – political, economic and geopolitical. Without stability, we make every enemy’s task easier and the job of our Armed Forces and intelligence services harder.

The hardest crises are the slowly burning ones, where the worsening situation has not been spotted, or sadly – as has happened in recent years – smoulders in full view but while the necessary tough decisions are ducked.

It is too easy to ignore the warnings of potential trouble because they don’t fit the political narrative of those in charge, or the ministers involved keep changing, or the problem seems too expensive to fix, or leaders are fearful of media and financial market blame.

We all know in our hearts that risks increase and it costs much more to extinguish these fires after they finally burst into the open than if they are put out earlier.

Distrust deepens

One of the worst examples was in the Cameron era, when as prime minister – ignoring the increasingly intense warnings of his chief of defence and senior civil servants – David Cameron delayed the decision to order replacement nuclear deterrent submarines to be built at Barrow-in-Furness.

The inevitable result was a long and very costly refit for the oldest of the current fleet HMS Vanguard, which had to include an unplanned refuelling of her nuclear reactor.

This has meant unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds, as well as great strain on our submariners and their families. This was completely avoidable.

There are so many other examples, such as fire hazards in cladding on high-rise buildings that were known well before the exposure of the problem by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, or weakened Raac concrete, known to be in schools but ignored until roofs began to fall in.

And our hard-pressed health service is struggling while today’s ministers fail to resolve their dispute with our junior doctors.

Any government pressed to spend money when general wage rises are high might have a case for one-year settlements less than the rate of inflation. But repeat that year after year after year – as the Conservative government has – and distrust deepens, increasing frustration and anger, and making the eventual resolution so much harder.

No quick fixes

There is a general lesson here about consistency of purpose in government and courage to act before, not after, crisis.

I am attracted to Sir Keir Starmer’s offer to lead a “decade of national renewal”, 10 years in power to direct British government and to build up our national resilience. It will take that long – there are no quick fixes. Rightly contained in this programme are pledges to spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence as soon as possible, and to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Similarly, Labour’s announcement of a “triple lock” on our nuclear deterrent indicates that we can in future trust the party to stick to serious defence policy.

There is also the understanding of the modern truth that we cannot have national security if we do not have energy security, as well as health security, supply chain and materials security and climate security. Failure to achieve any of these would imperil our survival in the turbulent world we are entering.

Disputes over energy, in particular, have been the main cause of instability around the world in every modern geopolitical era, before and after globalisation. It is the factor that touches on every threat.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine highlighted just how quickly energy dependency can be weaponised. We have all seen soaring energy bills, a consequence of the conflict, but also a result of Britain’s lack of energy preparedness. We were not ready for that shock.

There will be others in the years to come. When that happens, I do not want to see us beholden to fossil fuel autocrats. The sooner Great British Energy gets established, the better, along with acceptance of the mission to decarbonise the electricity system by 2030.

We should be leading the inevitable shift to clean energy, creating new technology and jobs in the process. David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, has talked about creating a “reverse Opec” of like-minded countries dedicated to decarbonising their power systems.

That would indeed be an energising mission worthy of the talents of the upcoming generation.

Prof Sir David Omand is a former UK security and intelligence coordinator, permanent secretary of the Home Office and director of GCHQ

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