Theresa May would go to war with Spain to “stand by” the people of Gibraltar, former-Tory leader Lord Howard claimed today.
The Conservative peer made the comments after the EU insisted any post-Brexit trade deal with the UK would not apply to Gibraltar unless Spain approved the measure.
Madrid has repeatedly called for Gibraltar – which has been under British rule since 1713 - to be returned to Spain, and there are now fears the peninsula could be used as a bargaining chip as the EU and UK negotiate a trade deal.
Gibraltar’s Chief Minister today called for the UK to do more to defend the status of the Rock, leading the Prime Minister to call him directly to offer reassurances over the Government’s support.
Speaking this morning, Lord Howard said Government would adopt the same position as Margaret Thatcher took during the Falklands Conflict in 1982 and send in British troops to protect the overseas territory.
In an appearance on Sky’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, Lord Howard said: “I think there’s no question whatever that our government will stand by Gibraltar.
“Thirty-five years ago this week another woman Prime Minister sent a task force 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.”
Lord Howard repeated the comments on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show an hour later, suggesting they were not off-the-cuff remarks.
Despite ongoing claims by Spain that Gibraltar should be returned to its jurisdiction, those living on the Rock have shown virtually no appetite to accede to the country.
A 2002 referendum on a plan got the UK to share sovereignty with Spain was rejected by Gibraltarians, with 99% voting against the plan.
In recent years, tensions have increased between Spain and Gibraltar, with Spanish border guards carrying out extensive checks on those entering and leaving the peninsula by car – sometimes causing five hours of tailbacks.
Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said it would be “absolutely awful” if Spain assumed power over the Rock.
He said: “It would strip us of who we are. Gibraltar would not be British if sovereignty is shared with Spain. For what price would you sell Cornwall to the French?
“It would be absolutely awful, because our home would have been handed over to a party who has no claim to title.
“Our day to day lives would not be the lives we lead to today, because we would be living in effect, partly what is somebody else’s land and that would be massively unfair to the people of Gibraltar.
“The United Kingdom goes to war over the principle of consent around the world and the people of Gibraltar have expressed their views as to what they think the sovereignty of Gibraltar should be, both democratically and freely.”
Theresa May called Picardo after his appearance on Marr to reassure him the Government remains “absolutely dedicated to working with Gibraltar for the best possible outcome on Brexit”.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “She reiterated our long-standing position that the UK remains steadfastly committed to our support for Gibraltar, its people and its economy.
“The Prime Minister said we will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes, nor will we ever enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also tried to play down suggestions Gibraltar was up-for-grabs in any post-Brexit trade deal, telling the Andrew Marr Show: “Gibraltar’s going to be protected all the way, because the sovereignty of Gibraltar cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar and they’ve made it very clear they do not want to live under Spanish rule.”
In last year’s Brexit referendum, 96% of Gibraltarian voters backed remaining in the EU.