Senior minister criticises Rishi Sunak’s National Service plan in election statement

Support for Rishi Sunak’s plans to force school leavers to do military or voluntary national service has divided his party.

An election address to his constituents in Wycombe, senior minister Steve Baker, whose seat is under threat from Labour, has appeared to criticise the philosophy behind the prime minister’s announcement and distanced himself from it.

Mr Sunak wants 18-year-olds to either join the military for a year or do community service every weekend in a new compulsory scheme.

The prime minister said the policy would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”.

Steve Baker does not appear to agree with compulsory National Service (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Archive)
Steve Baker does not appear to agree with compulsory National Service (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Archive)

The policy was announced over the weekend and in his message to constituency voters Mr Baker, a senior Brexiteer who was instrumental in the Vote Leave campaign, made it clear that he and other ministers were not consulted.

While he did not specifically name the National Service policy, Mr Baker wrote: “During a general election campaign, policy is not decided by ministers on the advice of officials and collectively agreed: it is decided by the leader supported by political advisers unknown.

“Candidates are not involved and even relevant secretaries of state are taken by surprise when policy is announced. It is perhaps the worst aspect of the democratic process and I have no reason to think it is not common to the Labour party.

“In that context, before any more policy is announced, I want to be absolutely clear where I stand for the electors of Wycombe.”

In an apparent swipe at compulsory nature of this National Service scheme, he added: “I am for liberty under the rule of law and Parliamentary democracy. History has proven time and time again that liberty under law – not compulsion and planning – is the surest road to peace and prosperity.

“That is, when people are doing no harm, government should leave them to work through their own virtues and vices in voluntary association with other people. Government ought to provide a quality, affordable safety net, but MPs and ministers are no more perfect than everyone else and should have the humility to act accordingly.”

Mr Baker is not the only minister to be unhappy about the new policy.

Andrew Murrson (left) warned National Service might damage morale in the armed forces (PA)
Andrew Murrson (left) warned National Service might damage morale in the armed forces (PA)

Defence minister Andrew Murrison put out a written answer in Parliament just 24 hours after the election was called raising concerns that National Service would “damage morale” in the military.

He warned: “The demanding, increasingly technical nature of defence today is such that we require highly trained, professional men and women in our regular and reserve armed forces, fully committed to giving their best in defending our country and its allies.

“If potentially unwilling national service recruits were to be obliged to serve alongside the professional men and women of our armed forces, it could damage morale, recruitment and retention and would consume professional military and naval resources.

“If, on the other hand, national service recruits were kept in separate units, it would be difficult to find a proper and meaningful role for them, potentially harming motivation and discipline. For all these reasons, there are no current plans for the restoration of any form of national service.”