Theresa May, senior ministers and security chiefs have met to discuss the UK’s response to the Gulf crisis following the seizure of a British-flagged tanker by Iran.
Downing Street has been hit by claims that the Government “dropped the ball” by failing to prepare for Tehran’s actions against British shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Prime Minister was chairing a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee Cobra to consider how to react to the capture of the Stena Impero on Friday.
Officials said the meeting would consider the options for “strengthening current reassurances” to commercial shipping as well as the response to Tehran.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We do not seek confrontation with Iran but it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to seize a ship going about legitimate business through internationally recognised shipping lanes.”
The spokesman said the ship was seized under “false and illegal pretences and the Iranians should release it and its crew immediately”.
Military experts have warned that cuts to the Royal Navy had left it over-stretched, with too few warships to protect British interests.
Defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, blasted his own government’s cuts for leaving the Royal Navy too denuded to protect British interests around the world.
Speaking on Sky News, Elwood also made a stark call for a reversal of defence cuts.
He demanded defence cuts are reversed on Sky News: “If we want to continue playing a role on the international stage – bearing in mind that threats are changing, all happening just beneath the threshold of all-out war – then we must invest more in our defence.”
Under a decade of Conservative cuts, the Royal Navy capability has been slashed along with army numbers cut down to 78,000 and RAF cuts too. Intelligence capabilities are severely stretched too.
A lack of comprehensive military presence to ensure the UK economy isn’t hit by Iranian threats to British shipping in the Strait of Hormuz means some Tories are insisting Britain now has to rely on the US naval might.
But the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “The high volume of ships moving through the Strait of Hormuz – up to 30 ships covering more than 100 nautical miles – makes it impossible to escort vessels individually.
“We already work closely with international partners to ensure a co-ordinated effort to defend freedom of navigation, this includes sharing information on threats to shipping and offering mutual protection for each other’s vessels.”
Downing Street denied there had been a US offer to escort all UK ships in the region. But a spokesman added: “The US has been discussing with a number of countries, including the UK, how we might deliver maritime security in the face of recent threats to shipping.”
The government was forced to make the denial after former minister and Boris Johnson ally Iain Duncan Smith spoke out. He insisted that the US had offered the UK “to use US assets to support British shipping and they were not taken up at that point.”
Duncan Smith slammed the government for not putting a plan in place to protect British shipping from retaliations after the UK seized an Iranian tanker on 4 July.
“If something didn’t send an alarm signal that we needed to have serious assets or protection and convoying of our vessels in that area then I want to know why not,” said the former minister.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will update the Commons on the situation on Monday afternoon, amid reports that ministers are considering freezing Iranian regime assets.
Frigate HMS Montrose is on duty in the Gulf but was unable to prevent the seizure of the Stena Impero.
Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood, speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, said: “There is much criticism about the Navy, about HMS Montrose not getting to there on time – I should actually point out that the USA have five or six warships in the region, including an aircraft carrier, and in the middle of June two of their tankers were attacked, one of them set ablaze.
“So, this is something that affects us all, it requires international co-operation, but also, most importantly, recognition that there’s a bigger geostrategic challenge facing (us) here – that is the reason why Iran is doing those things.”
Mr Ellwood continued his calls for more funding and investment for the armed forces in the face of more “diverse and complex threats” and said the Iranian issue is an example.
Cuts to the Royal Navy
Retired commander of UK maritime forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton said cuts to the Royal Navy’s fleet had limited its ability to act.
“There is no doubt that the size of the Navy since 2005 – reduced from 31 frigates and destroyers to now 19 – has had an impact on our ability to protect our interests around the globe,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I credit the politicians for acknowledging this now but it should have been acknowledged and pressed earlier.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond’s parliamentary aide, Huw Merriman, told Today that the Government has “dropped the ball” over the situation.
He said: “We did not put in place a chain where we asked all of our vessels to leave at a certain time under convoy, so it was hardly a surprise when one of ours got taken.”
With British forces denuded after almost a decade of Conservative cuts, some Tories were demanding the UK turn to the US navy, but others are concerned Britain will get dragged further into a volatile situation that has already almost ended in war between the US and Iran when Donald Trump called off an air strike at the last minute, with conflicting camps in the White House divided on how belligerent to be with Iran.