Conservative Party’s national service plan is the ‘monkey tennis’ of policy ideas

The policy of mandatory national service for 18 year olds has dominated British media

The Conservative Party has moved on from its widely panned UK general election campaign launch to seize the agenda on the first full weekend of campaigning, with its pledge to introduce mandatory national service for British 18 year olds.

The party’s first big policy announcement of the campaign – a plan that would force teenagers to serve in the military or to volunteer for civic roles – was first mooted on Saturday night. As Britain eased into a bank holiday long weekend, the initiative dominated media coverage and stymied Labour Party attempts to steer the debate on to economic issues.

Under the Tory plan, up to 30,000 British youngsters would complete a 12-month paid placement in the military, following a competitive process to pick the best recruits. Others could volunteer instead for one weekend per month of unpaid service in civic roles such as building flood defences, helping out in the fire brigades or as emergency first responders.

James Cleverly, the UK’s home secretary, said the £2.5 billion-per-year (€2.93 billion) plan would get British young people “out of their bubble” and increase their skills and confidence. Opposition parties, however, rejected the plan as an election “gimmick”.


Helen Morgan, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Shropshire, told BBC the plan reminded her of the infamous Alan Partridge sketch in which the fictional broadcaster suggests “monkey tennis” as a future TV show – after his other ideas are rejected. “I think it’s a pretty desperate campaign announcement,” she said.

Labour said the plan was “yet another unfunded commitment” from the Conservatives.

“This is not a plan, it’s a review which could cost billions and is only needed because the Tories hollowed out the armed forces to their smallest size since Napoleon,” said Labour, which estimated it would cost £12.5 billion over the course of the next parliament.

Nigel Farage, honorary president of the right-wing Reform UK party that aims to attract Tory voters, dismissed the national service as a “joke” that was targeted at his party.

“You get a focus group of half a dozen Reform voters in a room, the chairman says ‘now, what about national service?’” Mr Farage told Trevor Philips of Sky News.

“When you’re a weak leader – and [UK prime minister, Rishi] Sunak is not a leader in any way at all – you’re a follower. So you follow what the focus groups say, and [think] by doing this I can attack the Reform vote. That’s what it’s all about.”

The right-leaning Onwards policy think tank said its research last year suggested 57 per cent of British adults last year supported the idea of national service, rising to more than seven out of every 10 Tory voters.

Meanwhile, Labour launched a billboard campaign attacking a recent Tory suggestion to abolish national insurance taxes for workers. Labour said it was a “£46 billion fiscal black hole” because, it alleged, the plan was unfunded.

Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, wrote an open letter to British pensioners claiming the Tory move would “put your pension in real jeopardy”, as national insurance was used to fund payouts.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves, who if the polls are correct is on course to become the first woman to be appointed chancellor of the exchequer, said there would be no return to austerity under a Labour government, but she refused to rule out spending cuts.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times