Defence Secretary to face grilling over threatened cuts to armed forces

Updated: 

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson will face MPs' questions for the first time with a Tory rebellion brewing over the threat of cuts to the armed forces.

Cabinet colleague Liam Fox has suggested a compromise deal will be found to quell the unrest as he acknowledged there were tensions over a review of defence capabilities.

The International Trade Secretary's intervention came after backbenchers threatened a "scrap" over cuts and a defence minister signalled he could be prepared to quit if plans are implemented to slash the Army's manpower.

Size of UK armed forces
(PA Graphics)

Tobias Ellwood, the minister responsible for defence personnel and veterans, is understood to have concerns about proposals which could see the Army's full-time strength reduced by 12,000 to 70,000.

With Mr Williamson facing his first set of defence questions in the Commons, and Mr Ellwood set to be alongside him on the front bench, the issue has the potential to cause trouble for the Government.

Tory chairman of the Defence Select Committee Julian Lewis called for a 50% increase in defence spending as the only way to avoid the "hollowing out" of the armed forces.

Johnny Mercer, a former army officer and a prominent member of the Defence Select Committee, has warned the Tory leadership a number of Conservative colleagues are prepared to fight back over the threat of cuts and "feelings are running high" on the issue.

"Heading back into town for another scrap this week," he warned.

"I am determined that as the party of defence, we as a team will get it right."

Heading back into town for another scrap this week. I am determined that as the party of defence, we as a team will get it right. I laid out my views thus far in a debate last week overshadowed (rightly) by the budget.. pic.twitter.com/XuQDRXU7qB

-- Johnny Mercer MP (@JohnnyMercerUK) November 26, 2017

Mr Lewis used a letter to the Guardian to set out his views: "By barely achieving Nato's 2% minimum figure, we have dangerously downgraded the place of defence in our list of national priorities.

"Setting ourselves a spending target of 3% of GDP for defence would not by itself guarantee our security, but without such an increase there is no prospect of recruiting personnel and buying equipment on a scale sufficient to avoid the 'hollowing-out' of our armed forces."

Speculation about defence cuts has mounted in recent months since the launch of a review led by Theresa May's national security adviser Mark Sedwill.

The review is examining all aspects of national security capabilities, fuelling speculation it will prioritise measures to counter cyber attacks and terrorism rather than major defence projects.

As well as rumours about potential cuts to the strength of the Army, there have been concerns about the future of armoured vehicle programmes and suggestions that amphibious assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark could be axed alongside the loss of 1,000 Royal Marines.

But Dr Fox, a former defence secretary, said: "You have to look at our record.

"We are one of the very few Nato countries that actually spends 2% of our GDP on defence. There's a review going on at the present time and I think back to my time as secretary of state for defence where we had a similar review ongoing and there's always a lot of tension, not just between the MoD and the Treasury but also inside the MoD between the different parts of the armed forces and naturally there are concerns about the future shape of that.

"But this is an ongoing discussion. I'm afraid it's not unknown for some of these tensions to spill over into the public domain."

He told Sky News's Sunday With Niall Paterson: "I think we should wait and see exactly what sort of compromise we reach, because that's what it will be and remember that the UK is the fourth biggest military budget in the world and is one of the very few Nato countries actually fulfilling promises to spend and help protect our partners."

The MoD said no decisions had been made and dismissed reports about the options being considered for cuts as "speculation".

As unrest grew over the weekend Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, said: "The Conservative parliamentary party has a duty now to unite against further defence cuts to capability."

Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and a former army officer, said he was proud of Mr Ellwood for "standing up for defence" and warned that cuts were a "false economy".

A letter sent to Mr Williamson by Tory MPs warned that the loss of Albion and Bulwark would "dangerously limit the array of options" available to the Government in a military or humanitarian crisis.

It said: "We must make it clear to you that as a cohort of MPs representing a large portion of the Government's vote, we are not prepared to see the degradation of this nation's amphibious capabilities any further in this capability review that the Government is currently undertaking."

Mr Williamson's predecessor Sir Michael Fallon had begun publicly calling for more money for defence before his resignation earlier this month following allegations about improper conduct.

In his first Commons speech since his resignation, Sir Michael indicated he could be a standard bearer for Tory discontent about military funding, telling MPs on Thursday he would "find an early opportunity to speak out on the right level of defence spending to meet the threats that our country faces, and to do so more freely than the constraints of government allowed".

Asked whether Mrs May had sympathy with those calling for the defence budget to be increased to 3% of GDP, the PM's spokesman said: "We have the world's fifth largest defence budget, which is the biggest in Europe.

"We are one of few countries to not only meet but exceed the 2% spending target, and we are also committed to increasing the £36 billion defence budget by at least half a percent above inflation every year for the rest of the Parliament.

"We are investing significant amounts in the MoD. At the same time, the National Security Capability Review is ongoing and will report in due course."