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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Minister could quit over British defence cuts

Tobias Ellwood, minister for veterans, could step down if army is further reduced in size

Tobias Ellwood, the veterans minister, has voiced discomfort at plans to cut back the British army further. Matt Dunhan / AP
Tobias Ellwood, the veterans minister, has voiced discomfort at plans to cut back the British army further. Matt Dunhan / AP

Cuts to Britain’s already overstretched defence forces could provoke a political crisis, as it emerged that a minister in the Conservative government could quit over plans to reduce the army to less than 70,000 soldiers, according to The Times.

Tobias Ellwood, the veterans minister who served in the army in the 1990s and came to public attention earlier this year after he tried unsuccessfully to save the life of a policeman stabbed at the Palace of Westminster during a terror attack in March, has told colleagues of his “deep discomfort” at cuts suggested by the Ministry of Defence.

The cost-cutting is coming from the Treasury and the chancellor Philip Hammond, who set out ambitious spending plans in Wednesday’s budget that require some departments to take a financial hit.

The newly appointed defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, is apparently “completely awful” at the internal cuts that have been drawn up my military staff within his department, in response to demands from the Treasury.

According to The Times, Mr Williamson will take a stand on the latest proposals – perhaps to endear himself to a department which hasn’t yet taken him to heart. “We are beginning to try and push back,” a source told The Times.

The British government is keen to show America that it can maintain its status as one of the only Nato countries that meets its requirement to spend at least 2% of its gross domestic product on defence. However with other fulfilments to make across the rest of the British economy, Mr Hammond, a former defence secretary himself, has to balance the books of the whole government.

The military requires at least an extra £2 billion a year to achieve modernisation plans set out in a defence review two years ago. It is struggling to operate within its £36 billion budget and it can be revealed that a £600 million rise in nuclear deterrent costs this year means that savings are needed elsewhere.

Mr Ellwood, 51, a lieutenant-colonel in the army reserves and former regular officer, has indicated to colleagues that he would have to step down if the military was not shielded from the proposed reductions, Whitehall sources said.

“Right across the Conservative Party there is anxiety about the proposals and the impact they would have on Britain’s ability to defend itself at a time of increasing global threats as well as to contribute to Nato and affect the international agenda,” one source said.

“There is a need to mobilise every effort to convince the Treasury to wake up to the consequences of these cuts.”

It is rare for a government minister to resign on a point of principle. The last time a defence minister quit in protest at cuts was in 1966 when Christopher Mayhew, the Labour minister for the navy, stood down over plans to scrap an aircraft carrier programme in preference for land-based aircraft. Admiral Sir David Luce, the first sea lord, also handed in his notice.