Fox backtracks over French carrier-sharing

by Peter Wozniak

The defence secretary has dismissed the possibility of the UK and France sharing naval responsibilities as “unrealistic”.

Dr Fox made the remarks at a joint press conference with the French defence minister Herve Morin.

“In terms of actually being able to share an aircraft carrier, I would have thought that was utterly unrealistic,” he said.

He stressed that Britain would continue to seek closer defence co-operation with European allies, including France, and outlined limited plans to share the two countries’ transport planes.

The defence secretary added: “The UK and France are facing the realities of the tough financial climate and it is in our best interests to work together to deliver the capabilities that both our nations need.”

Speculation had grown recently that ministers were seriously considering sharing the use of aircraft carriers, with one either British or French vessel on permanent patrol.

The suggestion was rooted in the monumental spending cuts the defence secretary is being required to make by the treasury.

Problems over the practicality and implications of such an arrangement appear to have contributed to the government’s decision not to go ahead with the plans.

The reaction from the British media was also visceral however, and may have contributed to this embarrassing climb-down.

Dr Fox’s budget may face particularly stringent spending if he has to pay for the planned replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system without the aid of Treasury funding, which would lead to much greater pressure on funding Britain’s conventional forces, including the building programme of the two new aircraft carriers costing upwards of £5 billion.

The subject has reportedly been a source of tensions between Dr Fox and the chancellor George Osborne, who is extremely reluctant to provide Treasury funding for the Trident replacement.

The government’s strategic defence review, the first since 1997, is to take place later this year, but will be overshadowed by the necessity imposed by the Treasury to impose vast cuts in expenditure, to be laid down in the October spending review.