MP’s column: Seas must be protected

The recent events surrounding the British tanker in the Persian Gulf have proved an all too timely reminder of the importance of the Royal Navy, not just in the history of these islands but its centrality to the present and our future.

Because the world is changing at astonishing pace, the United Kingdom needs a fully flexible defence set-up that is prepared to react to a very broad range of threats and challenges.

For too many decades successive governments have underfunded the Royal Navy and we are now suffering from the consequences of that.

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We sold off our amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean to the Brazilian Navy – but some vigorous campaigning and repeated questions in the House by me and others meant that we have saved HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark so that the UK still has an amphibious landing capability.

Yes our army is comparatively small, but in a big emergency the army can be scaled up very quickly. Battalions can be added to regiments, but ships take time to construct and years of appropriate training to run properly.

This is even more the case now when technology plays such an important role in our maritime defence capability. As one Army major wrote to me (“with gritted teeth”), “The Royal Navy has to be the most important service for an outwardly facing island nation”.

With Brexit just within our grasp, we in Great Britain are looking forward to breaking free from the barriers erected by our EU membership.

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Fundamental to this is the capability of protecting our shipping across the world. Recently, we have been far too complacent.

In December 2017, for example, all six of our Type 45 destroyers were laid up in Portsmouth, whether for repairs, equipment failures, routine maintenance, or manpower shortages. This simply isn’t good enough, and the new Prime Minister and possible new Defence Secretary will need to grasp the nettle.

We are not alone, and Britain is a country with many friends. Our defence links with the United States and France are very close, not to mention the rest of our NATO allies.

The United Kingdom should take the lead in a strong, coordinated international response to keep the seas safe for our merchant vessels and to do that we need to invest more in our Royal Navy.

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Closer to home, I have raised in the House of Commons the matter of HS2.

Early on in this project, government insisted on the importance of increasing speed and cutting travel times. I think now even they realise spending billions to cut twenty minutes off a journey from London to Birmingham is hardly justified, so they tell us we need HS2 because of capacity.

But there are cheaper ways of increasing rail capacity like building a line down the M40.

Meanwhile, our rural and commuter lines here in Lincolnshire need much more attention. Improvements have been made, like with more services at Gainsborough Central, but I will continue to press for more to be done.

Sir Edward Leigh MP

Gainsborough Constituency