How Spain forced the UK to cancel a Red Arrows display over Gibraltar

The RAF's Red Arrow aerobatic team was due to perform in an air show in Gibraltar on Sept 23 2023, but the performance was cancelled
The RAF's Red Arrow aerobatic team was due to perform in an air show in Gibraltar on Sept 23 last year, but the performance was cancelled - CHRONICLE/ALAMY

As His Majesty’s representative in Gibraltar, perhaps Vice-Adml Sir David Steel more keenly felt issues of Britishness and the Rock’s connection to the mainland than the career UK diplomats.

Sir David, the governor of Gibraltar, is a Royal Navy man, having joined the service in 1979 and risen to Second Sea Lord. Along the way he became an aide-de-camp to Elizabeth II.

And so in the heat of late summer 2023, as a row between Spain and the UK that had been bubbling away for weeks began to approach boiling point, perhaps it is no surprise he spoke up.

The cause of the friction was on the face of it innocuous: a proposed display of the Red Arrows, just like the ones that have taken place at countless events around the UK for decades.

The controversy came from the location. It was in the skies above Gibraltar at an air show on Sept 28 that the red, white and blue smoke from the jets would billow out.

Gibraltar, a few square miles of land hanging off the southern tip of Spain, has long been claimed by Madrid since being ceded to Great Britain in 1713. With the border complexities created by Brexit, those claims were being elevated.

Vice-Adml Sir David Steel, the governor of Gibraltar
Vice-Adml Sir David Steel, the governor of Gibraltar, fought against the cancellation of the Red Arrows display - PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo/PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Yet Sir David, leaked diplomatic cables seen by The Telegraph reveal, believed that giving in to Spanish demands and cancelling the display would not be without consequence.

In a message to Hugh Elliott, the UK ambassador to Spain who was receiving Madrid’s warnings, Sir David noted how the diplomat was “walking on hot coals”. But there was a plea to hold firm.

“I cannot disagree with your submission which is, as ever, balanced and helpful,” Sir David wrote in the message sent to Mr Elliott in early September.

“All I would add, and I am becoming a broken record on the subject, is that if we back down now we will once again show a weakness that the Spanish will undoubtedly exploit.”

The governor of Gibraltar cited past examples, including the cancellation of a visit planned by HMS Queen Elizabeth, the vast Royal Navy aircraft carrier, to make his case.

He wrote: “I am also conscious that we have turned off a number of events over the last three years (not least a visit of HMS Queen Elizabeth) just to appease SP [Spanish] sensitivities. In return we have gained very little – just more demands.”

The fact that a recent visit from HMS Queen Elizabeth to Gibraltar was called off to “appease” Madrid has never before been made public.

HMS Queen Elizabeth
A visit of HMS Queen Elizabeth to Gibraltar was called off because of diplomatic tensions - Andrew Milligan/PA

Sir David reflected on the Rock’s UK connections, noting that after a walk down Gibraltar’s Main Street “one is left in no doubt about British Sovereignty”.

His communique ended with no ultimatum, just a gentle nudge. “I make no observation on what the right outcome should be,” Sir David wrote, noting the pros and cons were carefully balanced. “But I add the above simply so that we have all the issues for consideration on the table before a final decision is taken.”

The final decision would not be to hold firm. There would be no Red Arrow jets trailing the colours of the Union flag above the Rock. Why? Madrid’s dark warnings appear to have been the key.

For the timing of the planned display could not have been more precarious for British-Spanish relations and the long-term future of Gibraltar.

The UK’s departure from the EU had left the Rock, much like Northern Ireland, facing profound questions about how to keep a land border with another country still in the bloc open.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, had struck a new deal to avoid checks at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, after inheriting a temporary fudge from Boris Johnson.

His ministers were facing a similar challenge in Gibraltar. How to let the 30,000 people who cross the Gibraltar-Spain border every day, many for work, to keep doing so in the aftermath of Brexit?

Boots on the ground

Round after round of negotiations had been inching towards a long-term settlement, one where Gibraltar effectively enters the EU Schengen Zone and checks happen at the airport rather than the border.

But the most sensitive issues – would there be any Spanish boots on the ground on Gibraltar? And if so, where exactly and doing what? – were still to be decided. On Friday, Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, was still locked in talks trying to agree the final details.

Added on top was the intense political instability in Spain created by an election on July 23 that left no clear winner and Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, battling to retain power.

Months of coalition talks would follow. The Red Arrows display was due on the day that the Spanish Parliament was set to endorse a newly proposed government. In the end, one would not be fully formed until Nov 16.

And so it fell to senior officials in Spain’s foreign ministry, rather than ministers selected from elected politicians, to press home their disapproval once they became aware of the plans.

In three calls in the space of two days, a senior Spanish official spelt out to Mr Elliott just how opposed Madrid was to a Red Arrows fly-by above Gibraltar.

Notes on the first two conversations written up by the political section of the British Embassy in Madrid capture the female official’s stern message, one of firm warning.

The Red Arrows soar over the Alps
Spain was "deeply opposed" to the Red Arrows trailing the colours of the Union flag over the Rock - Cpl Phil Dye/Royal Air Force/CMA

The Spanish official said that Spain considered the display “unnecessary, unconstructive and provocative”, according to the notes. “This was not the time to undertake this sort of activity.”

Another line in the notes read: “When Hugh underlined that this was an air show, not intended for provocation or demonstration, her riposte was that the two were not mutually exclusive.”

What would happen if the UK went ahead? The political team in the British embassy in Spain was not certain, but a reaction of some form was a distinct possibility.

One part read: “It remains to be seen whether Spain responds more strongly, potentially by cancelling it, or by making a formal request of use for the Red Arrows not to perform in Gibraltar. But it is clear that Spain is deeply opposed to the activity.”

The third call did not improve the situation. In fact, the warnings were more explicit, as Mr Elliott himself recounted in a communique back to the Foreign Office.

Spain was refusing to grant the Red Arrows a “Notification of Air Missions”, known by its acronym NOTAM, which is the formal approval that allows planes to fly.

Warning of retaliation

Mr Elliott wrote: “The rationale was that Spain considered such a visible assertion of UK sovereignty over Gibraltar to be gratuitous and provocative.”

The UK position was that no such approval was needed, since the display would be happening largely over British airspace. But Madrid was warning of retaliation if it went ahead.

Summing up the message of the female Spanish official, Mr Elliott wrote: “Stressing that she was speaking personally and hypothetically … she noted that if we sought to proceed nonetheless with the display, Spain would consider that a ‘hostile act’, would seek to prevent it from happening and would need to consider its response. She anticipated that response would not be mild.”

What, exactly, were the consequences being hinted at for this “hostile act”? Could it mean Madrid pressing for tougher terms in the post-Brexit Gibraltar deal? It is unclear, but certainly British diplomats feared knock-on consequences for the talks.

And how, exactly, would Spain attempt to “prevent” the flights? Again, the specifics appeared to be left unsaid.

A precarious balance of risks and interests was now being weighed: the need for a Gibraltar agreement, the publicity knock if a display of Britishness was shelved at the demand of the Spanish, the unpredictable fallout if the private row escalated into a public spat.

It was not the first time Mr Elliott had found himself in a tricky spot over Gibraltar. His claims of bullying from Dominic Raab, the then foreign secretary who dressed down the ambassador over fears he was too open to Spanish suggestions of boots on the ground, had made front pages. Mr Raab resigned after an investigation upheld the complaint.

Different tone

In the final lines of his message back to London, Mr Elliott – stationed out in Madrid and tapped into the Spanish Government sentiments – offered advice markedly different in tone to that put forward by Sir David, the governor of Gibraltar.

Sir David wrote: “As a personal observation on this issue, I would simply note that of course we have every right to do what we want in Gibraltarian territory and airspace.

“That said, there are probably few things more provocative to the Spanish establishment mindset than the prospect of red, white and blue smoke being pumped out by UK military jets off the south coast of Spain (the geography means that this will be very visible from the Spanish mainland), on a day when the Spanish parliament is seeking to approve a new government, and I simply venture the question as to whether doing so is consistent with HMG’s [His Majesty’s Government] strategic interests for Gibraltar’s future.”

The decision, as ever in government business, was not for the diplomats. Advisers advise and ministers decide, as the old Westminster adage goes. But which ministers?

Both James Cleverly, the former foreign secretary, and Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, were briefed on the situation as the hand-wringing continued about what to do.

The fact that the matter was elevated all the way to the Cabinet is a reflection of how seriously Madrid’s words were being heeded by those paid to smooth out wrinkles in foreign relations.

Did not intervene

But Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, has its own government, one which is democratically elected by the 30,000-odd residents and holds London at arms length.

The official line from Whitehall is that Mr Cleverly and Mr Shapps ultimately did not need to intervene, since ministers in Gibraltar made the call and cancelled the display.

If Spanish demands could force a back-tracking in something as incidental as an air display, could it also be leading to more significant, long-term concessions around the negotiation table? That is the question now hanging with a deal finally said to be close.

The UK Foreign Office, Spanish foreign ministry, Mr Elliott and Sir David declined to comment when approached by The Telegraph. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “As part of operational planning, a variety of potential display dates and locations are considered by the RAF. A wide range of factors influence whether these are able to proceed.”

The change in the Gibraltar Air Show schedule, when it came, was offset by the reciprocal cancellation of a Red Arrows appearance in Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic islands.

An unnamed defence source framed the news – two Red Arrow displays cancelled, one in Gibraltar and one in Spain – as somehow a UK win. “They can’t have their paella and eat it,” the source declared with relish.

These leaked cables reveal a starker reality: That it was anything but a British victory.