Boris Johnson has watered down his target for higher defence spending made only four days ago, calling it a “prediction” and not a firm commitment.
The prime minister raised alarm on the Tory benches when he said it is “likely” the UK will be spending 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030 – and then hinted it will depend on “the size” of the economy then.
Mark Harper, a former Conservative chief whip, told him last week’s announcement had “appeared to be really quite solid”, but no longer did so after his Commons statement.
“Is it a commitment? And, secondly, how are we going to pay for it? Because you have to have a credible plan to pay for it. Are we going to put up taxes?” Mr Harper asked.
In reply, Mr Johnson pointed to spending announcements already made, including on the Aukus security pact with Australia and the US and a new air combat system.
“This is a straightforward protraction – prediction – based on what we are currently committed to spending,” he admitted.
And he added: “Of course much depends on the size of our GDP at the time. Much depends on the growth in the economy.”
Mr Johnson said he expected the UK to “pay for it out of steady and sustained economic growth”, despite warnings of a significant hit to the economy from his hard Brexit trade deal.
Following his return from the Commonwealth, G7 and Nato summits, the prime minister also rejected calls for the West to send warships to the Black Sea to lift Russia’s blockade on Ukrainian grain.
“No, we are not looking at that. There are alternative solutions that don’t involve the presence of UK or other warships in the Black Sea,” he told MPs.
The allies were exploring “using the Danube” to get grain out, or railways “in smaller quantities than we would be able to do with a giant maritime convoy through the Black Sea”, he acknowledged.
“We are looking at all the possible options, including smaller packets of grain coming out that way,” Mr Johnson said.
He also urged Saudi Arabia to release more oil to help ease the cost of living crisis – having failed to persuade the kingdom to shift on a controversial trip in March.
Responding to a Tory MP’s call for action, the prime minister told him: “He’s right about the role of Saudi.
“There may be some question about how much more the Saudis could pump out at this particular moment, but there’s no doubt we’re going to need a lot more Opec Plus oil.”
Mr Johnson also insisted “not a single person said that the UK was in breach of international law” to him while he was away in Rwanda, Germany and Spain.
The UK faces accusations of lawbreaking over its tearing up of the Northern Ireland Protocol, deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda and watering down of human right commitments.