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GAVIN WILLIAMSON’S plan to build a new military base in the Caribbean after Brexit is in total disarray, with the Tory Defence Secretary blindsiding senior officials who know almost nothing about the scheme.
The Morning Star can reveal that British diplomats spent the new year frantically asking their colleagues in London for clarity about which Caribbean country had agreed to host the mysterious new base — after Mr Williamson gave an interview to the Sunday Telegraph late last year.
Mr Williamson told the conservative broadsheet he wanted to get more British military assets “forward based” — and was looking for new opportunities to expand Britain’s “presence” in the Caribbean.
He did not specify where a new base would be built, but a source close to him told the Telegraph that Guyana or Montserrat were the most likely options.
Our investigation now lays bare the chaos that unfolded inside the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in the days after that newspaper interview was published.
Scores of internal emails, released through a freedom of information request by the Morning Star and supported by Guyana’s Stabroek News, show that British diplomats and senior military officials had no idea about what their boss was planning.
One official closely involved with British military policy towards the Caribbean commented sternly: “If I [and the High Commissioner to Guyana] have missed something about a sudden new plan for a base there then we do need to know.”
Another British diplomat fumed: “Great if someone wants to tell me about it or ask my views at any point ... ?! Has anyone asked Guyana ... ?”
The diplomat added: “Both locations are a nightmare to get to, and Guyana has interesting neighbours” — a possible reference to Venezuela, a country whose socialist President Nicolas Maduro is loathed by Whitehall.
The diplomat went on to say: “Luckily I subscribe to the Telegraph as so far this year it has enlightened me about Commonwealth Recruiting, funding for Commonwealth veterans, and now these new bases…”
Mr Williamson has gained a reputation for making major policy announcements without consulting colleagues or civil servants.
Last month, he claimed Britain’s new aircraft carrier would patrol the South China Sea on its maiden voyage. This angered Beijing, which swiftly cancelled a visit by Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Mr Hammond vented his frustration on BBC radio, saying that his colleague’s announcement was “entirely premature.”
Questions will now be asked about Mr Williamson’s plan to open a new military base in the Caribbean after Brexit.
Our explosive trove of emails reveals that there has been little or no planning to build a barracks in Guyana or Montserrat — but there does appear to be a scheme to upgrade Britain’s jungle warfare training camp in Belize.
In the hours after the Telegraph interview was published, one civil servant asked desperately: “Assuming this piece is accurate, do you have any further information you can provide us in relation to Secretary of State’s aspiration to develop a military base in the Caribbean (possibly in Montserrat or Guyana)?
“This is the first we have heard on this,” they added.
Another official, probably from the Foreign Office, was equally alarmed: “My High Commissioners in Jamaica [regional lead] and Guyana, plus Govenor Montserrat are all concerned about this.”
The Caribbean island of Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, with a governor directly appointed from London and a locally elected premier.
The governor appears to have been completely ambushed by the announcement and his team urgently asked London for clarification: “I imagine this may be speculative and inaccurate, but the [Telegraph’s] report is already whistling round the expatriate community on island here …
“With apologies for bothering you over the festive break would you be able to get us some more background?”
The Governor said he was “unaware” of the plans and warned: “The Premier and I both have New Year interviews planned so will need fuller briefing as soon as possible.”
Amid the confusion, officials began to privately rule out a new base in Guyana or Montserrat, but predicted that Britain would upgrade its base in Belize.
Mr Williamson’s deputy, Armed Forces Minister Mark Lancaster MP, visited Belize in September 2018 and signed an agreement to keep the barracks there open for another 15 years.
The confusion within Whitehall carried over into New Year’s Eve, with a senior military official commenting that the article caught them “by surprise” and they had to ask Mr Williamson’s office to explain the situation.
Eventually this official was able to inform colleagues that “our focus is on developing our footprint in Belize, not Guyana and Montserrat. Apologies for the additional work this has caused. Happy New Year though!”
An MoD press officer told the Morning Star that he could give “no steer on the firm location” of any possible new British base in the Caribbean.
He said a speech made by Mr Williamson on February 11 represented the department’s latest thinking on the subject.
In that speech the minister reiterated his desire to expand Britain’s permanent military presence in the Caribbean without specifying which countries had agreed to it.
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