Claims UK distracted from Gulf rejected by defence minister

Iranian seizure of tanker prompts accusation ministers focused on leadership election

A UK defence minister has rejected claims that the government had “taken its eye off the ball” by allowing a British-flagged tanker to be captured by Iranian forces in the Gulf.

As the UK pondered its next steps following the seizure of the Stena Impero by Iranian forces on Friday, Tobias Ellwood said it was impossible for the Royal Navy to escort every vessel through Gulf waters.

The government has been criticised by a former Royal Navy chief and a leading Conservative MP for failing to take measures to prevent the tanker being seized.

Admiral Lord West said ministers should have done more, hinting they may have been too distracted by the Conservative leadership election to act promptly. He said Britain's decision to board and hold the Panamanian-flagged tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar earlier this month for allegedly carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria was clearly likely to provoke a response from the Islamic republic.


Convoy protection

“We should have enacted control of shipping procedures, directing ships to assemble in safe areas and then taken them through in convoy,” Lord West wrote in the Observer.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative minister and party leader, and a leading backer of front-runner Boris Johnson for the premiership, was also critical of the way the government had handled the issue.

"The fact is that we have seized an Iranian tanker," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. "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."

Global role

Asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday whether the UK had taken its “eye off the ball”, Mr Ellwood replied: “No, not at all. It is impossible simply to escort each individual vessel.” He added: “Let’s place it into context – this has been a sudden spike in activity, in threat, that’s ratcheted up in the last few weeks. And it takes time to respond there.”

However, Mr Ellwood conceded that more money would be needed for the ministry of defence if Britain were to continue playing a global role.

“If we want to continue playing a role on the international stage, bearing in mind that threats are changing . . . then we must invest more in our defence, including our Royal Navy,” he said. “Our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests across the globe if that’s our future intentions and that’s something the next prime minister will need to recognise.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019