Theresa May would go to war to protect Gibraltar, Michael Howard says

Anushka Asthana Political editor

Theresa May would be prepared to go to war to protect Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher once did for the Falklands, former Conservative leader Michael Howard has suggested, in comments that were immediately criticised as inflammatory.

Lord Howard’s suggestion that the prime minister would be ready to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor 35 years ago came alongside a government pledge to protect the sovereignty of Britain’s overseas territory.

Downing Street said May had called Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, on Sunday morning to say the UK remained “steadfastly committed to our support for Gibraltar, its people and its economy”.

history of Gibraltar

She said Britain would never enter into arrangements that would bring the territory under Spanish rule against the “freely and democratically expressed wishes” of its residents, and promised to include the local administration in the Brexit process.

Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, also used robust language. “We’re going to look after Gibraltar. Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar ,” he said.

Although the question of Gibraltar had been included in the EU’s draft negotiating guidelines, circulated on Friday, Fallon attempted to ratchet down the controversy, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, by stressing that Spain had not specifically raised any issue of sovereignty.

Speaking minutes later, Howard used a broadcast interview to ramp up the rhetoric after saying there was “no question” of Britain weakening its stance with regards to the sovereignty of one of its overseas territories.

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” Howard told Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News.

The comments triggered an immediate response from Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron. “It is unbelievable that within a week of triggering article 50 there are Conservatives already discussing potential wars with our European neighbours.

“In only a few days the Conservative right are turning long term allies into potential enemies. I hope this isn’t a sign of the government’s approach to the long negotiations to come.”

He claimed Brexite rs had gone from cheering to “sabre-rattling for war” within four days. “It is absolutely ludicrous and totally inflammatory.”

Earlier, Picardo had flown to the UK to appear on Marr . He told presenter Eddie Mair that the government had included Gibraltar in its preparations for Brexit talks, and included the issue in a white paper, even if it was not specifically referred to in May’s article 50 notification letter.

Admitting he was n ot thrilled about Brexit after people in Gibraltar voted 96% in favour of remain, he said he was now energetically supporting the prime minister.

“Therein lies the rub. When we get the deal on Brexit, it must be a deal that applies across the United Kingdom in respect of future trade and if there is such a deal, it is only fair, proper and right that it should also apply to Gibraltar.”

In his interview, Fallon also said Britain and the remaining members of the EU would all be “worse off” if negotiators failed to secure a deal, as he reiterated a warning that the UK could withdraw security cooperation if Brexit talks fail.

Asked about the controversy surrounding May’s apparent threat to weaken security cooperation if Brexit talks turn sour, Fallon said the negotiations had to cover both a trade deal and issues such as counter-terrorism and police cooperation.

“It is very important to link trade and security because what we are now looking for is a deep and special relationship that covers both economic and security cooperation. Those two things go together,” he said.

“It is very important that we go on committed to the security of the continent.”

Fallon then talked about sending 800 troops to Estonia, others to Poland, and RAF Typhoons to Romania, which are all under Britain’s Nato commitments not linked to EU membership.

“We are stepping up security because it remains our continent and this is a very uncertain time for Europe and right we should be playing our time on that. We’d all be worse off if there wasn’t a deal – we are expecting to have a deal.”

The defence secretary admitted some issues were inside the European treaties, and others (including Nato) not.

“The letter refers to our ambition to have a completely new partnership on the economic side but also on security side,” he said, arguing that stating a fact about defence capabilities wasn’t a threat.

“This isn’t a bargaining process. We happen to have the biggest defence budget in Europe, we have the biggest navy in Europe.”

In admitting the government would do everything it could to avoid a “cliff edge”, he would not give full assurances that his party would enter a 2020 election having secured controls on free movement.

“We have made it clear that we are leaving the European Union, we are leaving the single market, we are leaving the customs union, and we will no longer be a part of the ambit of the ECJ. But it is also clear that we have to avoid a cliff edge – we need to give businesses the certainty that they need that there won’t suddenly be a difference the day after we leave and day before.

“We will do everything we can to avoid a cliff edge so there will be for some sectors inevitably implementation periods,” he said.

Asked if free movement could then continue beyond 2020, he added: “You are speculating about the course of the negotiations. We are not expecting to take advantage of the four great freedoms – our object is to regain control of migration.”

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