UK-China row: Philip Hammond undermines Gavin Williamson's warship carrier plans

21 February 2019, 11:11 | Updated: 21 February 2019, 13:27

The row between the chancellor and defence secretary has worsened after Philip Hammond tore into his cabinet colleague during a radio interview.

Asked on the Radio 4 Today programme about Gavin Williamson's recent announcement to deploy the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the China region, Mr Hammond dismissed it as "entirely premature".

"The aircraft carrier isn't going to be at full operational readiness for a couple of years," the chancellor told the presenter John Humphreys.

"No decisions have been made or even discussed about where it's early deployments might be. And when those decisions are made they'll be made in the National Security Council.

"It's a complex relationship and it hasn't been made simpler by Chinese concerns about Royal Navy deployments in the South China Sea."

Asked by Humphreys whether if Mr Williamson should "button his lip", Mr Hammond hesitated before replying: "I think it is very important that we manage this relationship with China very carefully and we do it through the National Security Council."

But defence sources have told Sky News that Williamson's speech was approved by the prime minister's chief of staff and the National Security Adviser before it was delivered at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) last week.

If true, this would undermine Mr Hammond's position.

In a major speech at the RUSI, the defence secretary announced that HMS Queen Elizabeth would visit the Asia-Pacific region to deter countries that "flout international law".

Recent reports have claimed that the chancellor was forced to cancel a planned trip to China because of fallout from the speech.

And in an extraordinary development, an unnamed cabinet source told the Financial Times last week that defence cuts would be coming as punishment for Mr Williamson.

Mr Hammond and Mr Williamson have a tempestuous relationship, having previously fallen out in public over the defence budget.

The Royal Navy has carried out "Freedom of Navigation" operations in the South China Sea in recent years, in line with allies including the US, Australia, France, Canada and New Zealand.

They are in response to China's ongoing territorial dispute over ownership of The Spratly Islands - an atoll that is claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.